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The Philosopher's Stone
Newsletter - 2016

January 5, 2016

Orders of Perception

Happy new year! I trust that your holiday celebrations were thoroughly enjoyable.

When last we met, I had started into an explanation of good and bad, which got me into explaining that I would have to explain control theory, which is synonymous with systems theory, in order to get us to one aspect of control theory, which is orders of perception. Now that you have poured yourself a fresh cup of coffee and settled back with some of the last of the Christmas cookies, here we go.

The basic building blocks of the universe are experiences, occasions of experience. This understanding has superseded both materialism (the basic building blocks of the universe are material stuff—atoms—which somehow rearrange themselves into whatever) and idealism. But experientialism is actually a cleaned-up version of the other old view: idealism (the basic building blocks of the universe are thoughts/ideas). The seemingly solid physical world is just a sort of congealed thought, and everything seemingly solid begins as a thought, morphs into a blueprint, and ends up as a house, or whatever. Heraclitus did in the old atomists when he pointed out that you cannot step into the same river twice. Unfortunately, that message did not sink in, and Heraclitus has only recently come back into his own, after the atom was split and it was discovered that there is no there there.

I touched on input control systems and comparing stations last week. We are constantly comparing what we want (the picture in our head) with the incoming signal/perception from the outside world (outside our heads, that is). If the signals match, oh, joy! We get a burst of instant pleasure. If they don’t match, oh, woe! We get a burst of instant pain, and we start to behave in some fashion that we believe will affect the signal coming in from the outside world to one of our comparing stations. All we care about is the incoming signal, not current reality, but that is a whole separate discussion. For now, let’s look at what happens inside the comparing station before it does its comparing.

We are only actually in touch with the outside world a silly millimeter beyond our little finger. Checking on that is the job of a series of perceptual filters. (If you are an engineer, they are a nested hierarchy; if you aren’t, congratulations!) This first filter measures intensity (what a tape recorder records). The signal then climbs through four more physical levels, a transitional level (relationships), and four psychological levels, the top or tenth being universal oneness, in which only maybe one comparing station is open and you are very much at peace with the world.

There is a ton of research connected with the first seven of these filtering levels. The last three are extrapolated from the ones that are already beyond argument. The eighth filter/order of perception is values. This is where we part company with the animals, with which we are in step through the first seven levels of filtering the incoming signals from the outside world (animals along with all other living creatures function as input control systems). Good and bad are values (this is how we got into this discussion in the first place).

The ninth order of perception/filter through which the incoming signal travels upward (they are hierarchical) is systems of values. Systems of values include such things as the Roman Catholic church or a baseball team. You can move it to another city, change its uniforms and players, and it is still the Dodgers.

But oh, that tenth order! Universal oneness would seem to describe what mystics experience. It is our direct experience of God, in whatever terms we care to describe him. If we are experiencing perceptual error (incoming perception not matching reference perception) at any of the lower filters/orders, we will get busy behaving, and we will not be as open to the experience of God as we might otherwise be.

For more information on control theory, read psychiatrist William Glasser’s book written in consultation with physicist William Powers, Stations of the Mind (1981). Glasser was first intrigued by reading Powers’s book, Behavior: The Control of Perception (1973). These were the starting point for my doctoral dissertation, An Integration of Selected Social-Personality Theories into Glasser’s Control Theory. It is available through University Microfilms (1985).

Why should you care? Because this is what unifies science and religion: the work of the quantum physicists and others woven with Whitehead’s process-relational thought. Control theory should be the underlying explanation of human behavior, not psychohydraulics (Freud), psychotelephonics (stimulus-response), or even humanism (Third Force). As you have just seen in this brief explanation, it leads to the feet of God.


January 12, 2016

Control and Orders of Perception

I feel that I ought to go back and fill in some of the cracks in our discussion of control theory. To that end, here are some quotable quotes from Stations of the Mind, Glasser’s first book on the subject of control theory (or choice theory, if you prefer). The first is from the Foreword, by William T. Powers:

Control theory started its major growth in the 1930s, among engineers trying to design not controllable devices, but controlling devices.
Without being particularly interested in psychology or biology, these engineers succeeded in discovering a kind of organization which could have inner purposes and which, instead of reacting to external forces, could sense and act on the world around it and thus control aspects of that world. The result, the servomechanism, has caused a second Industrial Revolution already, but science is just starting to realize that the industrial side of the revolution may be far less important than the revolution in our understanding of living systems that grows from this new concept of organization. (Page ix)

Powers goes on to describe the shortcomings of scientific theories of human nature in terms of their not making much sense to nonprofessionals. Psychology has been particularly disappointing in this respect. He then states, “Control theory, the theory of how living organisms control what happens to them, does make common sense.” Powers was influenced by Warren Mc Cullouch, whose daughter was in school with him; and his colleagues, whose work he encountered “when I was fresh out of high school and immersed in learning electronics for the sake of World War II”. These were names such as Pitts, Ashby, Von Foerster, and Norbert Wiener. Powers, an engineer, collaborated with psychologists in order to pursue his interest in learning how this work applied to human beings.

Next, Hans Selye, the great expert on stress, contributes the Introduction, and here I find support for my side of a long-standing argument between the Philosopher and me:

[T]he common denominator of all man’s noble or vulgar efforts—whether it be to please God, to find self-expression in a great work of art or science, to obtain happiness, love, money, or power, or even to commit serious crimes—seems to be a striving, consciously or subconsciously, to earn goodwill and gratitude from one source or another. But is this not, in fact, one of the most valuable commodities we could ever seek, for maintaining our personal safety and homeostasis? In addition, it also satisfies the requirement for self-expression, since we can only be certain of gaining benevolence through creating things which actually are beautiful, enjoyable, or useful.
Thus, it turns out that there is no real conflict between practical egoism, and altruism. The philosophy of gratitude or altruistic egoism is best suited to our ideals as well as to our physical nature. But we must add a further element to this guideline, one that takes cognizance of individual differences and shows each of us how to apply the above principle in all the varied circumstances of life. (Pages xvi-xvii)

He concludes, “Find your own natural stress level”, “Be an altruistic egoist”, and “Earn thy neighbor’s love”. But the Philosopher had finally come to agree with me anyway!

In his chapter, “The Orders of Perception”, Glasser states:

[A]ll we ever know of the real or external or outside world is the energy that comes from the world and strikes the sensory receptors of our perceptual system. Everything else that we claim is the real world is in fact our own perceptions of that world, perceptions which we constantly try to change so that they coincide with the world in our head. . . . Starting with our first cry and continuing for the rest of our life, we care about what is going on out there only as long as we are unable to change it to be more like the world in our head. . . . [I]t is only our world, or the world in our head, that counts for us. (Pages 90-91)

He continues, “We learn to experience the world around us through an orderly hierarchy of perceptions, low to high or simple to complex. Without this hierarchy or . . .the orders of perception, we would lead random, disorganized lives struggling to gain order out of a haphazard world that would make little sense.” Powers tells us “how, from the energy that strikes our sensory receptors, we actually build our personal world”, even though “our input or awareness of the world is not always conscious”.

We will resume this discussion after another week’s worth of occasions of experience.


January 19, 2016

Control and Orders of Perception (2)

Here we are (finally!) at the nested hierarchy of incoming perceptions that the brain/body/mind has evolved to deal with “the whole blooming buzzing confusion” of input . This is way technical but well worth learning, even if you aren’t an engineer! Don’t worry: when the engineers finally get there, they will be way ahead of the rest of us!

This stuff got started decades ago, but because of the metaphysics of the zeitgeist—the prevailing materialism—it got overlooked, ignored, or just plain suppressed. In that kind of culture, anything new gets stuffed into an isolation pen, lest it prove dangerous to established custom. Please note: biochemist Roger Williams once stated—possibly in a speech before Congress—“When science becomes orthodoxy, it ceases to be science. It also becomes liable to error.” That understood, here we go: from the endpapers of Stations of the Mind (1981), which I studied under the auspices of the author himself, psychiatrist /William Glasser:



[What follows on the endpapers is really three films of a movie overlapping into one, and people in the class objected to the diagram’s being all horizontal, because the orders are hierarchical; several redrew it to show this. But here are The Orders of Perception:]

Third—Configuration or Shape
Fourth—Control of Transitions
Fifth—Control of Sequence
Sixth—Control of Relationships
Eighth—Control of Principles
Ninth—Systems of Values
Tenth—Universal Oneness, Meditation

To repeat: the first five orders are physical; the sixth order is transitional; the seventh order and the extrapolated orders that follow are psychological/spiritual. Folks, this is where it all comes together. Nobody is exclusively right or wrong; it all depends on one’s perspective: the top of the mountain is very different from the valley. But sooner or later, the eighth order kicks in: values; and you’d jolly well better understand that those values some way or other come from the Ultimate Reality, a.k.a. God. Remember that Alan’s favorite definition of religion is “the set of beliefs, attitudes, and actions related to Ultimate Reality”. Atheism is therefore a religion, albeit a very adolescent one. But it infuses the zeitgeist; don’t let it corrupt those of us further along the path.

Bottom line: perceive at the lowest order; reorganize (get creative) at the highest order for strength.

The cover of the book shows your head. Inside your head is your model of the outside world, as contained inside your head. But your head is in the outside world. All but the external world is actually within our cerebral cortex. Go deal with all that! The systems/control model is how we do that. It blows the old models of reality sky-high. Yet through all this, God goes right on being God. It is our job to understand him better as our understanding grows. “I am not contained between my hat and boots”, said Walt Whitman. There is far more to us than the physical world. The physical world is in some sense congealed out of our “ideal”/panexperiential world.


January 26, 2016

Getting Through Winter

Here in Florida, we are just emerging from a nasty cold snap that has greeted us for a couple of mornings with frost on what’s left of the grass. We have also had torrential rains and flooding in places (not close to me, happily), courtesy of El Niño. The Christmas season was unseasonably warm, even for us, which makes this sudden contrast even harder to take. Many people have gone to great effort to spend their winters down here so as not to encounter the rigors of winter farther north. The days are short and the nights long. But people in other harder-hit areas of the country don’t have much sympathy to spare for us, so we have had to look for diversions to help us get through this dreary, depressing season. For me, it is performing in a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s fourteen hilariously funny comic operas continue to be amazingly popular, being performed by schools and community theatre groups as well as professional productions. They are a blend of delightful and sprightly songs with outrageous lyrics loaded with plays on words. Gilbert’s plots are farfetched and silly, and his characters get into terrible but preposterous difficulties that are then resolved amazingly quickly. They satirize various aspects of Victorian society. Complex and colorful, they are the perfect antidote for winter blues, and one goes home singing the tunes.

We are busy with rehearsals for Iolanthe, which to me has the most delightful music of all the G&S operas. Being in the ladies’ chorus (“we are dainty little fairies, ever singing, ever dancing”) means memorizing all the songs along with intricate dance steps and movements. Most of us now have our costumes, gauzy fairylike things. The men’s chorus will be dressed as peers of the realm, and they, too, do their share of singing and marching around, metaphorically if not literally thumping their august chests. Show dates are February 5, 6, and 7; and we have been promised that we will be back on the newly refurbished big stage of the Performing Arts Center in Tarpon Springs, if you want an excuse to come to Florida, where it is at least warmer than elsewhere most of the time. Tickets are available at .

Iolanthe is the story of a fairy who married a mortal, “a dark sin against our fairy law”. Since she is a great favorite among the fairies, rather than put her to death, the fairy queen sentences her to lifelong banishment on condition that her husband be told that she is dead and never hear from her. At the beginning of the opera, twenty-five years have passed, and the fairies plead with their queen to pardon her and restore her to the band. This done, they discover that she has a son, Strephon, about which her husband never knew. Strephon is nearly twenty-five years old and is a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal. He is a shepherd of Arcadia, and he is in love with Phyllis, a ward of the court under the supervision of the Lord Chancellor, who will not give Strephon, a mere shepherd, permission to marry his ward.

The scene then shifts to the House of Lords, who do a dignified and stately entrance in a hilarious procession. It seems that all of them are in love with Phyllis, as is the Lord Chancellor himself. She is summoned to appear before them, where she explains that her heart is given to another: Strephon. Indignant, they spy on him, led by Lords Tolloller and Mountararat. They overhear him talking with his mother, Iolanthe, and she is comforting him for his treatment by the lords. They mishear what is actually being said, and conclude that Iolanthe is his girlfriend. Furious, they confront him, and he immediately explains that the lady is his mother. But fairies are immortal, and Iolanthe only looks about seventeen years old, so the lords scorn his statement. Phyllis, equally furious, hits the ceiling, declaring that she will marry either Tolloller or Mountararat, both wealthy earls, “and I don’t care which”. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Strephon cries for help from his Mighty Protectress, who has promised that his mortal legs “shall be our special care”. Immediately the fairies and their queen appear and take on the peers, who quickly realize that they are in big trouble, because the queen is going to see to it that Strephon becomes a Member of Parliament, “carrying every bill he chooses”, including quite a few that don’t suit the Lords at all: “You shall sit, if he sees reason/Through the grouse and salmon season”.

Act II finds the fairies influencing the Members to vote as they wish, so Strephon is wreaking havoc. But the Lord Chancellor, plagued by nightmares because of his love for Phyllis, sings his famous patter song, which is explained in a future opera, Ruddigore: “This particularly rapid unintelligible patter/Isn’t generally heard, and if it is, it doesn’t matter!” This is why you absolutely need to read the libretto before you attend a performance, so you can appreciate all the delicious jokes.

The Lord Chancellor convinces himself that he is entitled to marry Phyllis, who meanwhile has reconciled with Strephon when she learns that his mother is a fairy. Iolanthe, veiled, appeals to the Lord Chancellor (Strephon’s father) for the happiness of the two young lovers. He refuses her, so she lifts her veil, breaking her fairy vows again. The fairies show up, and the queen is ready to kill Iolanthe, when the fairies reveal that all of them are now married to peers: “We couldn’t help ourselves”. But the queen can’t slaughter the whole company, so the Lord Chancellor comes to an elegant legal solution, the peers all sprout wings, and everyone heads happily off to Fairyland.

Now, don’t you feel better? What are your problems compared to theirs, which do get resolved, and quite quickly! To read the libretto without going out in the snow and ice, Google “G&S Iolanthe libretto”, and it should come right up with a choice of the entire script or just the song lyrics, etc. You might even want to try singing some of the tunes in the nice, warm shower.

Sometimes we have to wait patiently for our heart’s desire, but at other times, God accelerates things with breathtaking speed. So get ready, physically, mentally, and spiritually, to receive your heart’s desire! G&S characters are idiots, but you aren’t.


February 2, 2016

Your Relationship with God

Yesterday morning I was reading my Daily Word. Moving into February, I came across a little article by Ric Schumacher, a Unity minister, describing his experiences in convalescing from injuries suffered in a serious auto accident. This was far worse misery than any of us usually encounter. For him, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His miseries prevented him from sleeping soundly, if at all. As a well-trained New Thoughter, he chose to use this time “for prayer. I had read of mystics who prayed all night long, and now it was my chance to do so. Most of my prayer time involved prayer for my healing.”

Nightly prayer made Ric aware of the needs of the other nursing home residents. He chose to release thoughts about his own difficulties and “minister to them. In my all-night prayer vigils, I would pray for their concerns, for their healing, and for the manifestation of God’s good in their lives”. A few nights later, he had a “transcendent experience” that made him aware that “contrary to all appearances, I was healed!” This appears to be a mystical experience that changed Ric’s life forever. It took a while for that bodily healing to appear in the outer world, but it did get there: “I opened the way for God’s blessings to flow into my life in new ways. I learned that those who minister to me experience the same joy I experience when I minister to others.”

Ric concludes:

I learned that the Divine is expressed through each individual in unique and wonderful ways. The encouragement here and the most important thing I learned is that in times of personal challenge, I must pray less for a healing light to shine on me but instead through me. In doing so, I am first a blessing to others and then I am blessed in return. (Daily Word, Vol. 54 #1, Jan-Feb 2016, pages 46-48)

To me, this is an interesting reframe. I am not a minister, nor have I endured the physical challenges that Ric had to endure, but at whatever point I find myself, this is helpful guidance. Most of us try to put our best foot forward in public, even though in private we have assorted difficulties. If we can keep our pores open to God long enough to feel ourselves making the shift over to concern for helping others with their difficulties by letting ourselves be “A healing light to shine . . . through me”, we may learn that whatever we concentrate our attention on overflows onto us in the process. The lantern itself has become a beacon of healing to the person holding it as well as to the person on whom its rays shine. The trick, as always, is to learn where to concentrate our attention. This opens a way for new blessings to come into our own life.

Process thought teaches that what God can do, God is already doing. He doesn’t sit around and wait for enough prayer power to build up, enough of his children to be swinging on his arm, crying “Pleeeease”. Instead, we have to change enough for his actions to get through to us. God’s loving and dependable character—his primal nature—does not change, but his consequent nature changes as we change; God grows as we grow. This is how we influence God as well as having him influence us.


February 9, 2016

Happy Lunar New Year!

Oh, you didn’t know that it was the Chinese New Year? Me, neither, until I saw today’s logo on Google, with all the little monkeys. It began some hours ago and moved around the world. The Sydney Opera House is lit up with red lights for good luck. Loud noises, such as firecrackers, seem to be important; and since the Chinese invented gunpowder, that is probably why we follow suit with our celebrations. There are big things planned for London, one of the larger celebrations outside of China. There is a long list of things not to do on the first two days of the new year, such as wash your hair or wear old grungy clothes, because you might wash your prosperity away or attract poverty with poverty thoughts. But looking at a long list of things not to do starts you thinking about poverty, so that doesn’t strike me as a particularly helpful approach!

Feng shui is more positive and constructive, at least, as it is practiced in the west. The idea is not so much to obsess over possible negativity as to use symbols to reinforce good luck. Certain energies or influences move into a region for a month, a year, or a twenty-year period. In wisdom’s way, you pay special attention to areas of your home that you use the most or that are most favorable to you, emphasizing or activating desirable things. There are various feng shui band-aids that you can apply if necessary, but you don’t dwell on those for very long. The symbolism is far more important than the reality, so if you can do something highly symbolic of negating or neutralizing something you don’t want, it gives you a good feeling and shifts your expectancy to good and happy things to come.

Another valuable aspect of feng shui is a big emphasis on cleanliness and order. These are antidotes to congestion of body or mind, outpictured in our immediate environment. We are encouraged to clean things out and tidy things up, sort of taking a broom and sweeping out the inside of our head. Since like attracts like, creating order in our lives and thoughts makes things go better.

What all of this is really about is energies and our free will to at least vector them, if not to control them completely. We can’t control the weather, but we don’t have to build our house on top of a mountain, where the winds can beat on it and destroy it. We don’t have to build it way down in the valley, where a flood might sweep it away. It is considered auspicious to build one’s house halfway up the mountain, where there is a certain amount of shelter and dryness and coolness as compared to a steamy hot valley. We can notice the configuration of a river, and we can build our house on the side of a curve that is the most advantageous to us. If something is producing bad energy, such as a tree branch hanging too close to the front door, we can trim it back or remove the tree and plant another in a better location. Our real goal is always to have an environment that facilitates our working toward our heart’s desires.

Harking back to control theory, we are constantly trying to make the signal from the outside world match the signal from our head. The signal from our head is our reference perception, our mental picture of what we want, or at least think we want. The incoming signal from the outside world informs us about current reality. If the two signals match, O frabjous day! If not, we begin to behave in ways that we hope will make the reference perception and the incoming perception of reality match. This involves our reorganization system, which can get very creative and try all sorts of off-the-wall things to make those signals/perceptions match.

We must remember that we only care about our perceptions of reality, not reality itself. The incoming perception might be totally misleading, but if it matches the reference perception, we’re happy. This can explain some weird human behaviors, for better or for worse. Even if things in reality are actually fine, if our perception is that they aren’t, we’re not happy.

There are numerous anecdotes that illustrate this. Perhaps the best known is the story of a tramp who crept into a railroad car just as the train was taking off. Belatedly, he realized that he was in a refrigerator car. The door was locked from the outside, and this was a long trip. Preparing to slowly freeze to death, the tramp began to keep a little diary of what he was experiencing, describing all the symptoms. When the train reached its destination, the tramp’s lifeless frozen body and the diary were discovered. The reason that this is interesting is that the refrigeration in the car had been turned off the entire time! If negative assumptions—negative thinking—can have this powerful a physical effect, what might positive assumptions—positive thinking—accomplish? “Thoughts held in mind produce after their kind.” There just might be something to all this New Thought! God is present in each occasion of experience, and those experiences comprise those incoming and reference perceptions, along with everything else.

Now is the time to picture your heart’s desires in this Year of the Monkey as coming true, sooner than you think, and quite often in amazing ways.


February 16, 2016

Excuses for Celebration

There’s a theory that says that we are in such a glow from the Christmas holidays that it carries us all the way through January before the winter doldrums set in. Then February is such a short month and so riddled with holidays that it’s gone before we know it. By the end of the month, we will be two thirds of the way through winter. But then there’s March.

When we lived in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, people made no bones about it: March was the worst month of winter. Lake Geneva is a very deep lake: in places, nobody knows exactly how deep it actually is. By January, the ice is so thick and solid that one can drive cars on it and put ice fishing shacks on it. But it is in March, when the ice has begun to melt in places, that cars and fishing shacks start to fall into holes in the ice. It’s another 31-day month, when we are so tired of winter and cold and being cooped up inside that we could just scream. We don’t usually notice when the first day of spring comes and goes. In a number of northern states, if studded tires are even still legal, they have to come off on April 1st. I remember one winter in Illinois when we had a huge blizzard on—you guessed it—April 1. Everyone had dutifully removed the studded tires. April fool!

So you have barely recovered from the Lunar New Year and welcoming all those monkeys, when here comes Valentine’s Day followed hard on by Presidents’ Day. You get to make a Lincoln log with powdered sugar and trimmed with marzipan mushrooms, along with cherry pie for Washington. There’s no historical support for the idea that Washington ever chopped down a cherry tree, and the trim for a Lincoln log sounds like artistic—or culinary—license. School children in Illinois used to get the day off for Lincoln’s birthday; I don’t know whether they still do for Presidents’ Day.

But there is still half of February left, and we need all the cheering up we can get, especially if we are foolish enough to read or watch the evening news. One of our greatest statesmen was Thomas Jefferson. President Kennedy, at a White House dinner for Nobel prize winners, once referred to Jefferson in a toast:

I think that this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet. Whatever he may have lacked, if he could have had his former colleague, Mr. Franklin, here, we would have all been impressed.

Surely we could all use yet another February holiday to help us get through the doldrums. A third president could be honored in February, particularly one whose accomplishments were so extraordinary even in an age of great patriots “who more than self their country loved”. I believe it was Jefferson who introduced ice cream to the new country when he returned from being Ambassador to France. There is the perfect food to accompany the Lincoln log and the cherry pie. He also settled the hash of the Barbary pirates and brought about the Louisiana Purchase, which enlarged our territory amazingly with a stroke of the pen.

Another great figure who never was president but who was instrumental in the formation of our remarkable system of government was the aforementioned Benjamin Franklin. He invented the Franklin stove, the post office, bifocals, lightning rods, and various systems of city government that led to greater health and safety. But if you think that is just too much celebration for a short month, we could wait until March and celebrate Franklin day by flying kites, if it warms up.

Many have said that New Thought could only have come into existence in the United States of America, where the entire system of government rests on “certain unalienable rights”, seen as coming from God, beginning with free speech and freedom of religion. People came to this country in the first place in order to worship God as they saw fit. It is most important that New Thoughters have an accurate understanding of the history of the founding of this country. Its Constitution is one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human race. There is a great deal of misinformation concerning our form of government and indeed concerning the great individuals who created it (and don’t forget Abigail Adams, who put her two cents in; and Dolly Madison, who rescued the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington from the flaming White House as the British were trying to burn it down.) We should probably be honoring James Madison and James Monroe and even the controversial John Adams for their contributions as well. And hey, so the weather is bad: think of Washington and his ragged army wintering at Valley Forge barefoot and in rags because the Continental Congress didn’t pay Washington so he could pay his troops. The real reason was the poor form of government that created the Continental Congress in the first place. The Founders learned from these mistakes and from their careful study of history, philosophy, and politics.

My favorite book on this subject is by W. Cleon Skousen, The 5000 Year Leap, published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies. If you read it and enjoy it, as I believe you will, you may also enjoy three other books by Skousen and colleagues: The Real Benjamin Franklin, The Real George Washington, and The Real Thomas Jefferson. They include primary-source quotations from these individuals, so you can look up exactly what they said on various topics. In this way, they correct a great deal of misinformation that is circulating.


February 23, 2016

On the Threshold

Of what? We have a week and a little more until March, during which we will finally see the vernal equinox, heralding the beginning of spring on March 19. This being leap year, February is a day longer than it would otherwise be, and it is about three weeks until the equinox. So depending on our temperament, we can go shovel the driveway, clean out all the closets, huddle by the fire and read the latest fiction, or chase the patches of sun that places like Florida provide now and then.

All right, we could be said to be on the threshold of spring. But depending on our age, and which half of this planet we live on, or whatever else may be happening in our lives, the picture could look quite different. One of the most important functions of history is to let us imagine other perspectives of all sorts, and—we hope—to learn various lessons concerning how to repeat or extend the good periods and avoid falling into the traps of the bad periods. Santayana may or may not have said it, but the point is still valid: those who cannot remember the past may be condemned to repeat it.

Perhaps we have fallen victim to other people’s mistakes, even including the accident of our birth. One of the greatest strengths of New Thought is that it encourages us not to think of ourselves as victims, even though we may have every human right to do so. But like attracts like. A victim mentality can only attract more victimhood, even if we bravely cover it up and go around with a cheery—if wan—smile. This is definitely not what is meant by “Fake it till you make it”; you’ll never make it that way. You can’t fool your other-than-conscious mind; it’s an open sewer into which all sorts of garbage falls, until you get busy and clean it out by filling it with a steady trickle of genuine positivity: clean, pure thoughts that you would like to see hang around a while. This is Henry Wood’s (1834-1909) famous cistern metaphor:

The kingdom over which human thought is the rightful sovereign is primarily subjective; but through its objective relations its reign is projected outward. Being a positive active force, it shapes and controls matter; which is only passive material, powerless and inert. As human thought traces, follows out and harmonizes with the divine thought-pattern, it takes on wonderful potency. It becomes re-enforced and indorsed by that almighty power of the divine economy called Law.
In the human physical organism thought is at work, like a carpenter in a house, either building up or pulling down. Thought, or thought-quality, gives tone and character to all the chemical changes and transmutations which continually go on within the bodily structure. Materialism recognizes the mind as a bodily function, thinking as cerebration, and ideas as brain secretion. Were this a fact, mind could never exist apart from its physical base. . . . The most fundamental of these laws relating to thought-sequences is, that the body is a general expression of the quality of past thinking, not merely of yesterday, last week, or last year, but of its composite for the past life.
This stored-up mental reservoir is a submerged personality which thinks, reasons, loves, fears, believes, accepts, and draws conclusions beneath and independent of consciousness. It is this, and not the matter of the body that takes disease or contagion when the conscious ego is unaware of exposure. . . . The usual sequential effects cannot come to the body directly, but must come through the pathway of mind. . . .
This deeper or trans-conscious mind can only be gradually changed, and that by means of a stream of changed conscious thinking, which must be poured in for a considerable time. It may be compared to a cistern into which a small stream of turbid water has been flowing for a long period, until the process has rendered the whole contents turbid. Now begin to turn in a stream of pure sparkling water, and gradually the character of the whole aggregation will be changed. Just so by a controlled thinking power we can now begin to rectify the reservoir of mind by turning in a stream of pure wholesome thought, until the quality of the whole is purified. . . . Realizing the importance of a rectification, we should each lose no time in turning such a sparkling rill of positive thought into the submerged mentality, as will make it grow clearer and stronger, so that when disorder or inharmony knocks at its door, it will respond: Depart; I never knew you! The recognition of man’s two differing minds, and a reasonable discrimination between their provinces and operations, explains a great mass of phenomena otherwise unintelligible. (Ideal Suggestion Through Mental Photography, 1893, pages 49-52.)

But what about...? We have all been brainwashed by a screwed-up metaphysics that we encounter on every hand, that seems so powerful, so scientific. We will take another look at that next week. Meanwhile, try to keep that trickle of uplifting thoughts going from whatever source is available to you.


March 1, 2016

At Last!

We have finally made it out of the quagmire commonly known as February. As good New Thoughters, we are of course grateful for all the winged Cupids and great statesmen honored in this shortest of months which, nonetheless, seemed to go on forever in Leap Year, which turns out to have been known and understood for a very long time indeed. It took America and England 260 years to catch up with the rest of Europe in making an adjustment. The initial adjustment: adding a day every year, was too much; so some genius figured out that we should only adjust every four years. Maybe we should honor him with a day in February. BTW, if you don’t stream WCRB (Classical Radio Boston), you may not be aware that Rossini’s (William Tell Overture/Lone Ranger Theme) birthday is February 29, so he has only had fifty-four birthdays.

But enough romantic/patriotic/scientific trivia. We were discussing screwed-up metaphysics, which at this point in time has infected the human race consciousness so that all but the most extremely advanced consciousnesses are jerked around by it. I mean the silly notion that only what can be seen and measured by the five physical senses is real. To believe that is to hold that what humans value most highly is unreal, mere squeaks in the machinery, in Gilbert Ryle’s famous statement about the ghost in the machine. I quoted Hartshorne’s comment on this stance last November 10th. But I am not going to play Ain’t It Awful and get into a discussion of the many nefarious forces that have come together in the last hundred years or so to infect the entire culture of the greatest country in the history of the world, the one with a system of government that allowed for human weakness and took steps to ensure that all humans would be free to prosper and to correct for the actions and consequences of those who would violate this system for reasons of power and greed. God in his infinite wisdom sees farther than we do, and God has seen to it that forces such as New Thought are in place to assume leadership roles in getting us back on course. But to overcome error of this magnitude, such forces must transcend any one religion or society.

Rather, let us look at some of the latest scientific research on the old nature vs. nurture controversy: is it all about heredity or environment? The answer turns out to be “It’s the environment, Stupid!” Since hard sciences are not my field, if they are yours, I encourage you to look up the latest research on epigenetics for yourself. Heredity is maybe ten percent of the picture; the overwhelming majority of influence comes from environment. Thought environment (our habitual thought patterns), yes; and while we inhabit physical body temples, it matters a very great deal how we care for them: wholesome food and drink, rest, exercise, breathing clean air. If you frequently frequent fast food joints, sooner or later, the toxicity is going to catch up with you. You need some version of our Henry’s cistern cleansing stream, as discussed last week.

Somehow, well before Einstein, the seeds of process thought had been sown and are reflected in Henry’s writings. In metaphysical terms, the building blocks of the universe are bursts of energy known as quanta (as in quantum physics). This was built on the earliest effort to conceive of life not as a series of still photographs, but as frames of a movie, each frame lasting maybe a tenth of a second. It all goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who famously said that one can’t step into the same river twice. Unfortunately, even back then, he was shouted down by the atomists. But he gets to have the last laugh, thanks to the process thinkers. As Whitehead put it, the basic building blocks of the universe are occasions of experience, which pile up like drops of water from our Henry’s stream of clean water coming into the cistern; until it is just one step to the goal, one more drop until everything shifts for the better. It seems instantaneous, but those drops have been piling up for quite some time.

If you want a readable and fascinating account of a lot of the cutting-edge science in this field, I wholeheartedly recommend Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles (2008/9, Hay House). Lipton is a cell biologist, a former medical school professor and research scientist. One of numerous positive reviews, by Lee Pulos, Ph.D., states: “This is a courageous and visionary book that provides solid evidence from quantum biology to dispel the myth of genetic determinism—and implicitly, victimhood. . . . our beliefs create every aspect of our personal reality.”


March 8, 2016

Spring Preview

I just came back from my first walk that was longer than from the car to the door in weeks. We have lovely, warm sunshine, the first day that the winds haven’t been too chilly to be pleasant. Sunday, we go back on daylight saving time, and the following Sunday is Palm Sunday, when it usually snows up north, but I am down south. The Sunday after that is Easter, which is early this year. Sandwiched somewhere in between are St. Patrick’s Day and the first day of spring. These are pleasant, happy things to look forward to. Not much to complain about, huh?

One common business management technique is management by exceptions. This means that you wander around looking for problems, the idea being that you solve them as quickly as possible before they can spread. If you are looking out for anything that is out of line, exceptional, then how bad could things get? There are a number of reasons for not preferring this management method, probably the most important being that while you have your head down, managing, running things from your left hemisphere, you aren’t showing much leadership. For me, hand in hand with that observation comes the realization that management by exception builds a habit of always looking for what’s wrong instead of what’s right. Even if there are problems, the quickest and best way to get rid of them is to collect possible or even partial solutions. What has worked for others, or what might work? If we are thinking systems, we have a broader perspective, so we are more likely to see what the real, bigger, more complex problem is. Solving that could solve or prevent a bunch of other problems at the same time.

Looking around for things to complain about, implied at the end of my first paragraph, is a sort of management by exception. Business author Stephen Covey recommends managing from the left hemisphere, but leading from the right. The right hemisphere is—metaphorically, at least—the location for our connection with God, even though as good New Thoughters as well as good process thinkers, we know that God is everywhere present and available. Anyway, the right hemisphere is what we are going to use for plugging in to God’s perfect possibilities for us, the source of our creative new ideas, which lead to goals to be striving for rather than problems to be dwelling on. Remember that control theory (synonymous with systems theory) teaches that we are constantly comparing what we want (our goal) with what we have (our present state with respect to that goal), and turning on our behavioral system in an effort to close the perceived gap between the two. All this falls under the heading of process thinking.

Alan and I used to teach a college philosophy (with a liberal dose of psychology) course, “Self Leadership Through Mind Management”. Someone had already pointed out that there is no such thing as time management; there is only mind management. We all get the same 24-hour day to work with. Mind management is riding herd on your thoughts, holding fast to the useful ones and ditching the lousy ones. It involves prioritizing our activities based on importance, but also to some extent based on maintaining our operating systems that make our daily lives run smoothly. If we don’t properly maintain these little support systems, the big things will also break down. So we have to look at all of it, important, urgent, and routine supporting, on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Ultimately, the only way to do this is to keep our eye on the doughnut, not on the hole, whatever be our goal (sorry; couldn’t resist! ;-) ). Dwelling on the hole, the lack, the exception, is just going to drain our energies, and we are going to go nowhere but down. In the immortal words of business consultant Jane Elizabeth Allen, “Your brain hears what your mouth says”, so affirm what you want, not what you don’t want (well, it’s ok to precede an affirmation with a deck-clearing denial: “I don’t want this; I want that”).

Self leadership starts with Covey’s first three habits, which he summarizes as victory over self. It subsumes all this mind management. Then we are ready to move into public victory, which enables us to interface with others , progressing from independence to interdependence, which is the most powerful way of operating but can only be undertaken by people who are already independent in their thinking and acting.

All of this is a blueprint for physical, mental, and spiritual growth. To bring it full circle, it starts with not looking for things to complain about, but for things to be happy and rejoice about, even if we have to start small and improve from there. Spring is almost here, so forget the mud and concentrate on the stars.


March 15, 2016

Spring Forward

In my part of the world, we have just successfully navigated the Great Leap Forward into Daylight Saving Time. (Please note that we are saving daylight by the numbers we assign to the hours; we are not doing anything at all related to savings, which pertains to what you do over time at your bank.) Nobody enjoys losing that hour of sleep, and I can remember a year when we experimented with having the leap come in February, which turned out to be disastrous because children were out waiting for the school bus in the dark. But everybody enjoys having that extra hour at the end of the afternoon for running errands, working in the garden, or sitting quietly on the lanai/porch/veranda/patio with a book or companion and a pleasant beverage.

I happen to have several calendars and was fascinated to note that they do not all agree on which day is the first day of spring. Two calendars say it begins on the 19th; one says it is not spring until the 20th. Didn’t we used to hear that it is always the 21st? Are the Vice Presidents in Charge of Looking Out the Window just tired of winter? What is all this really about?

In any system there are transitional phases, during which it is appropriate to take stock of affairs in whatever organization may be involved. If we or our organization have been extremely busy, a season of downtime may be appropriate for repairs and other maintenance. If things have been slow, it may be appropriate to juice things up a bit, to detox, to look for ways to add energy or efficiency, whether it be a business or a human body we are looking at. And look we do: in the mirror, at the books, or in whatever way may be appropriate. We note good changes to encourage, and not-so-good changes to halt or at least slow down.

These stocktaking periods are in many ways modeled on the changing seasons in the climate, whether there are four: spring, summer, autumn, and winter; two: dry and rainy; or the three seasons reportedly encountered in Maine: Winter, July, and August. (To those three, some would add a fourth season coming immediately after Winter and known as Mud.) Even if things have been frantically busy, we need to carve out some quiet time to sit on the veranda or at least in the sun room if we aren’t able to head for somewhere in whichever hemisphere isn’t experiencing whatever we are at the moment. Quiet, so we can hear ourselves think, since thinking is at least half of what we need to do. The other half is feeling: how do we really feel about x, y, or z? Then we take our preferred word processor—which can be anything from a #2 pencil to a laptop or even a smart phone—and list things as they occur to us. This isn’t a to-do list; it’s just a memorandum so we won’t forget things. Then we can go back and prioritize in some fashion. We can change our mind and cross off some items. We can group items by categories, such as books to read or letters to write. We can group things related to home or work. Then we go take a nap, play tennis, see a movie, plow the north forty, check on the paper clip supply, or do anything that occupies our conscious mind so that our other-than-conscious mind can go to work in our behalf.

After that break, or that weekend in Jamaica, things somehow become clearer. We may find that we can see things that were not visible before, often systems related. Routine tasks at home or work may be bogging us down because of the way we have them organized—or not organized. On a broader scale, centers in our home or business may be getting in each other’s way, to the detriment of the organization as a whole. Studies have repeatedly shown that pushing ourselves to exhaustion makes us less and less efficient and effective: breaks help keep us performing at our best and help us think more clearly.

Winter in nature is the time for the seeds to lie dormant in the ground, for the animals to hibernate, for things to rest. There need to be equivalent rest periods in our lives, even if what is ultimately needed is more activity. Spring is traditionally a season for new growth, accompanied by spring cleaning, even in the form of winds that blow off the dead branches from trees and shrubs. So whatever day spring actually arrives, rest up for it so you will be ready to spring into action in an organized fashion.

Lagniappe: Yesterday’s email brought a notice from Mark Forster that he is once again operating his web site with blogs and a monthly article on productivity. His latest and most helpful book, Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques to Get Things Done (2015) is available through Amazon and is his best yet, even though his earlier ones are still well worth reading. The principles he covers in them continue to be valid, but his practices have evolved over time. He was formerly a consultant to churches and individuals. You can get to his web site from here:


March 22, 2016

Happy Easter

Let me be the first to wish you a happy Easter along with the hope that you are seeing good weather wherever you are, something compatible with your new Easter bonnet “with all the frills upon it”. In the film Easter Parade, Fred Astaire ends up on Fifth Avenue wearing a top hat complete with a small bunch of flowers and a pastel ribbon around it. “And you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.”

Alas; times have changed. I can’t find any jellybeans with fruit pectin in them, which was their only redeeming nutritional significance. So let us turn our attention to something more seriously paschal.

Christology takes us all over the place. There are times when looking at a wide range of perspectives on the same subject is useful in that it helps us clarify what we do and don’t individually believe. By extension, the same can be said about whatever happened early on Easter morning. There is an enormous amount of serious scholarly science concerning the Shroud of Turin, unfortunately accompanied by some very unsound research by those seeking only to discredit it. Alan’s friend and colleague, Frank Tribbe, was “the first author to have access to [the findings from the first scientific Shroud of Turin Research Project]” (Portrait of Jesus? The Illustrated Story of the Shroud of Turin, 1985). Tribbe was by training an attorney (as was Alan, among other things!). Another attorney and Shroud expert is Mark Antonacci (The Resurrection of the Shroud: New Scientific, Medical and Archeological Evidence, 2000). One comment by one of the early researchers involved in that scientific research can be paraphrased as “we can’t say with assurance that this was the shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, but we can say that whoever wore this shroud rose from the dead!”

Whatever happened that morning changed the world, beginning with the frightened and scattered disciples who later were willing to suffer martyrdom for the beliefs created in them by what they saw and heard in those first few weeks. This was the first point in human history that whatever happened in the known world could reach to all corners of it, because of the power and influence of the Roman Empire. Paul, “breathing threats and hate” could be converted from the young church’s greatest antagonist to its greatest supporter, and Paul was the student of one of the great Jewish scholars and leaders, Gamaliel. Christianity began as a cult of Judaism (and cult is not a dirty word; it merely means an offshoot, not necessarily a bunch of heretics). Most of the first Christians were Jews, a fact that still shocks a lot of Christians who obviously haven’t studied their Bibles as much as they should have. Then Christianity spread to the Gentiles as well, and if you know your Bible, you know how that got started: “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts, chapters 9-11). Another great, readable book written in 1930 is Frank Morrison (pseud.), Who Moved the Stone? The Wikipedia description of the author is fascinating; this author’s perspective on the subject has converted many skeptics to Christianity.

From P. P. Quimby to the present, New Thoughters have sought to be science-based in their approach to their religion. We are more inclined than many to be broad-minded in our approach to our religion, disorganized though it may be. Yet at the same time, many of us are mystics (direct experience of God), or at least, mystic wannabees. And we know from William James (Varieties of Religious Experience) that people who have had a mystical experience can almost never be talked out of it. This interesting combination leads to a rich soil in which exceptional crops can grow, along with a lot of “tares” for which we have to wait in patience for the harvest, when the angels will join us in figuring out which is which. That’s what Jesus said (Matt. 13:39). But New Thought is also famous for its symbolic interpretation of the Bible (try Charles Fillmore’s Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, or Ernest Holmes’s Science of Mind Textbook. Symbolic interpretation of the Bible is one of the main ways that we can reconcile the mystic with the scientific.

So there are various ways in which we can approach discussion of the events of Easter morning. Alan and I have stated ours here and there in our past writings, mainly in chapter three of New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality (rev. ed. 2003, available from Amazon). Suffice it to say that something hugely world-changing happened then and continues to happen, something that can never be successfully swept under the rug by those who would make a religion out of the laws of the physical world (scientism) as distinguished from those with a healthy curiosity, characterized by Leslie Weatherhead as possessing a mental box with an easily opened lid, inscribed “Awaiting Further Light”. May that amazing light of Easter morning dawn in your heart and mind this Easter Day.


March 29, 2016

Your Personal God

Everybody has probably heard the old story about the blind men trying to describe an elephant, having encountered various portions of its anatomy. Not surprisingly, they came up with differing viewpoints (view?).

Similar things happen when people try to describe God, especially if the people are trained philosophers. Lately (XXth century onwards), we have had some great help from the quantum physicists and from a mathematician and professor of physics in England who in retirement came to America and had an entire blockbuster career as a philosopher at Harvard. He, his colleagues, and their followers came up with process thought, which broke many of the old approaches to philosophy and theology wide open, seeing the world as dynamic rather than static, seeing the relationships among all that is, and picking up on the idea that “is-it-a-wave-or a particle?” depends on your point of view, your perspective. It’s both.

Another great XXth century concept is personalist philosophy, which pretty much came into being at Alan’s alma mater, Boston University. The big names are Knudsen, Bowne, Brightman, Bertocci, and my household Philosopher. Alan studied with Pete Bertocci and with John Lavely, who wrote the article on personalism for Alan’s beloved Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Another big name in personalist thought is Ralph Tyler Flewelling, much admired by New Thought founder Ernest Holmes (Religious Science, Science of Mind). Sadly, very little of Flewelling’s thinking seems to have rubbed off on Holmes, spiritual giant though he may have been.

Alan and I have encountered well-trained scholars who refused to even read the section on the subject of personalism in our first jointly-authored book, New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality. Since most people don’t even know what the term means, I hope that you will at least let the idea in out of the rain.

Like many other terms, personal has a different meaning in the realm of philosophy. It has nothing to do with one’s monogram or one’s own opinions or what one doesn’t care to share with others. It does not refer to anything one can put in one’s pocket and call “Mine!” In a nutshell, it holds that God is the ultimate Person, person being defined thus:

A person is a self that is potentially self-conscious, rational, and ideal. That is to say, when a self is able at times to reflect on itself as a self, to reason, and to acknowledge ideal goals by which it can judge its actual achievements, then we call it a person. —Edgar Sheffield Brightman, A Philosophy of Religion (1940), page 350.

To call God the ultimate Person is therefore to establish a floor, not a ceiling, on what God is. It’s not nothing but; it’s something else. Here is what Alan and I had to say on the subject under the heading “Getting Personal” in chapter six of New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality (rev. ed. 2003):

Many major philosophers and religionists regard personhood as the key to understanding everything. Personalism is an important form of idealism, associated primarily with Borden Parker Bowne (1845-1910) and his successors. Charles Hartshorne, who is not usually classified as personalist, says that “personality is the only principle of wholeness, of integration, on a complex level such as the universe must involve, of which we have any experience.
Person does not always mean human being. . . . All normal human beings are persons, but not all persons are human beings. If certain animals, such as dolphins and whales, are as advanced as we are led to believe, they may be persons; if there are angels, presumably they may be persons. There may be many kinds of non-human persons inhabiting planets throughout the universe. Above all other persons is the ultimate Person, God, personal not only in relation to us, but in Godself. God is the only complete person; we are fragmentary persons. There is no impersonal Ultimate beyond or underlying the personal God.
We emphasize that person and personal as used here do not refer to one’s more-or-less superficial mask (what the words literally refer to) or guise or public role covering one’s deeper character or individuality, but to that basic individuality itself.
To some, it seems conceited and unduly human-being-centered (anthropocentric) to think that something more like us than like a rock (which is about as impersonal a thing as you can imagine) could be the highest reality. But ask yourself whether you can conceive of the highest, most basic reality as something lacking in individuality (unity), self-consciousness, self-control, rationality, wisdom, love, ethical sensitivity, sense of humor, ability to choose one course of action rather than another, appreciation of beauty. Can you believe that a reality having such qualities is dependent on anything lacking them, or arose out of such a dull existence? To believe that it, or we, could have done so is to embrace a materialism that dispenses with anything worthy of being called God. Knudson corrected a common misplacement of God and ourselves when he noted, “In emphasizing the personality of God we affirm, not the likeness of God to man, but rather the likeness of man to God.” Bowne maintains that “complete and perfect personality can be found only in the Infinite and Absolute Being, as only in Him can we find that complete and perfect selfhood and self-possession which are necessary to the fullness of personality.” Bowne warns against
Transferring to [the Supreme Person] the limitations and accidents of our human personality, which are no necessary part of the notion of personality, and think only of the fullness of power, knowledge, and selfhood which alone are the essential factors of the conception.

Most of chapter six is available online at no charge here:

Perennialism or Primordialism or Ancient Wisdom
Panentheism vs. Pantheism
Person: Human, Divine, and Other
Healing in a Process New Thought Perspective
Law: Natural and Divine

To be continued.


April 5, 2016

Getting More Personal

I spent a lively hour browsing in what’s left of Alan’s library on a search for books on personalism or written by the Boston personalists. Based on vague whims, I accumulated a pile of four, including one volume of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967, v. 6). I also found a “critical introduction” from Chalice Press that Alan picked up in 1999 at an American Academy of Religion convention. Randy Auxier (“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” is the slogan on his website), a solid member of the Center for Process Studies, wrote a glowing endorsement of the book (Rufus Burrow, Jr., Personalism: A Critical Introduction , which was hot off the press).

The funny thing is that I haven’t done more than glance at the body of the two books by Borden Parker Bowne (1908) and Ralph Tyler Flewelling (1915) yet, because I became engaged with the preface to one and an introductory chapter by another author in the other. They did indeed introduce the material and provide background for just why the subject was so interesting. So these will let us slide into the subject comfortably.

But first, just a bit of background from the encyclopedia:

Personalism is a philosophical perspective or system for which person is the ontological ultimate and for which personality is thus the fundamental explanatory principle. Explicitly developed in the twentieth century, personalism in its historical antecedents and its dominant themes has close affiliations with and affinities to other (mainly idealist) systems that are not strictly personalist.

Remember that John Lavely, the author of this article, was a black-belt philosopher at Boston University. After a bit on the history of the term persona, he melds into “the importance that personalists have attached to Boethius’ definition [in Latin] of person as an individual substance of a rational nature”. The term personalist is more recent, having been used by Walt Whitman and Bronson Alcott in the 1860s. Then in the early XXth century, Renouvier in France, Stern in Germany, and Mary Whiton Calkins (yes, ladies did get taken seriously in philosophy) in the United States took up the torch. In 1908, Bowne delivered the Harris Lectures at Northwestern University, published later that year as Personalism (catchy title). I’ll get back to that in a moment. Lavely quotes Bowne as saying, “I am a Personalist, the first of the clan in any thorough-going sense”. Lavely continues, “In general, personalism has been decisively influenced by both the Greek metaphysical and Biblical religious motifs of the dominant Western theological tradition.” With one exception, “personalism in virtually all its forms has been integrally connected with theism”. But it considers itself “a system defensible on philosophical grounds and not one based merely on theological presuppositions”. So relax.

Personalism’s antecedents include touches of Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Lotze. If you are a black- belt philosopher, that should make you feel right at home. If you aren’t (and I’m not), just know that it is of respectable lineage. New Thought philosophers (all six of them) should have heard enough thus far to make them eager to learn more.

Let’s pick up the preface to Bowne’s Harris Lectures. Bowne outlines the ideas of Auguste Comte, the founder of French positivism (but don’t panic yet). Comte has us evolving from theology to metaphysics; and then, having outgrown those, our thought “passes into the third and last stage of development, the positive stage”. So this “let’s ditch metaphysics” notion goes back at least that far: “Metaphysics is ruled out as a source of barren and misleading illusions, and science is installed in its place as a study of the uniformities of coexistence and sequence which are revealed in experience.” Not so fast!

In this view, Comte was partly right and partly wrong. By explanation Comte understood causal explanation, and he was quire right in pointing out that explanation in terms of personality is the one with which men [and Mary Whiton Calkins] begin. He was equally right in saying that abstract metaphysics is only the ghost of the earlier personal explanations. Later philosophic criticism has shown that the conceptions of impersonal metaphysics are only the abstract forms of the self-conscious life, and that apart from that life they are empty and illusory. [The test for whether or not something is abstract: Can you put it in a wheelbarrow? If so, it is not abstract.] Comte was equally right in restricting positive science to the investigation and registration of the orders of coexistence and sequence in experience. But he was wrong in making caprice and arbitrariness essential marks of will, and equally wrong in rejecting all causal inquiry. The history of thought has judged his doctrine in this respect. Causal inquiry, though driven out with a fork, has always come running back, and always will. It only remains to give the causal doctrine the form which is necessary to free it from the objections of criticism.
The aim of these lectures is to show that critical reflection brings us back again to the personal metaphysics which Comte rejected. We agree with him that abstract and impersonal metaphysics is a mirage of formal ideas, and even largely of words, which begin, continue, and end in abstraction and confusion. Causal explanation must always be in terms of personality, or it must vanish altogether. Thus we return to the theological stage, but we do so with a difference. At last we have learned the lesson of law, and we now see that law and will must be united in our thought of the world. Thus man’s earliest metaphysics reemerges in his latest; but enlarged, enriched, and purified by the ages of thought and experience. (Pages vi-vii)

The rest of Bowne’s preface is equally juicy, and I hope you get to read it some day. And it just gets better: In 1924 Alfred North Whitehead arrived at Harvard.

Next week, we will look at the introductory material to Flewelling’s book (and remember; Flewelling was also a New Thought/Religious Science author).


April 12, 2016

Still More Personal

New Thought enthusiast (Religious Science) and philosopher Ralph Tyler Flewelling wrote his book, Personalism and the Problems of Philosophy: An Appreciation of the Work of Borden Parker Bowne in 1915. Alan Anderson acquired a used copy of it on November 10, 1965. In a brief Foreword, Flewelling tells us:

The essential problems of philosophy are few. Out of three or four fundamental presuppositions flow whole systems of thought. Unless the fountain itself is clear the outflowing streams cannot be kept so. The nature of reality, or being is the fundamental principle by which all systems are to be judged. (Page 11)

He goes on to explain that he undertook this work “by the express desire of Professor [Rudolf] Eucken”. The Professor was so eager to see it undertaken that he wrote the entire first (introductory) chapter, “The Work of Borden Parker Bowne”, himself. The Foreword indicates that this chapter “was one of Eucken’s American addresses”. So this chapter seems like a good place to start looking for insight into this subject.

Eucken never met Bowne, who died a week after Eucken had received word of a prospective meeting in Jena. This doubtless contributed to part of his eagerness to see Bowne’s work made more easily available. (Flewelling’s book is meant to be a “brief and suggestive treatment”.) Eucken is impressed by Bowne’s own personality, one which is equally eager to recognize the good and criticize the not-so-good in the writings of others. “We find in his writings his own inmost convictions expressed clearly, and the openness of his ‘confessions’ is a marked and fascinating element in them”. Eucken goes on to zing Schopenhauer, “who preaches a Hindu’s self-abnegation and indifference, while we find him personally the genuine epicure”; which Eucken considers “personal untruth”. By contrast, he “find[s] in Spinoza the expression of his own inner convictions, and I must have respect for him even though I do not agree with his conclusions. In reading Bowne, one respects and agrees, for there is no word uttered behind which one does not feel the man”. (Pages 18-19)

Eucken goes on to compare and contrast Bowne and “Lotze, the famous Göttingen professor with whom he studied”. Bowne finds Lotze’s religion “on the fringe of life, and it is a question whether it ever affects the central thought”. But Bowne “puts religion at the very center, and regards it as the crown of being, maintaining that metaphysics and logic are enlightened by the fundamental question of religion, and are to be understood only in connection with it”. Wow! New Thoughters, are you listening? He goes on in this vein for a couple of pages, then: “No spiritual mind can exist without personality, for otherwise, it would be shadowy and vague and have no independent existence of its own”. Lotze and Bowne agree here, and Bowne adds “that this activity in nature must proceed from a God, who shall be considered the active, underlying principle. As Goethe says in Faust, ‘Nature is the garment of God’”. Eucken adds, “We must believe in a creative power behind all phenomena or we are not true even to our own subjective lives.”

Bowne, says Eucken, doesn’t think much of naturalism and politely tees off on “those writers who assume to be contented with the natural, the visible, or with the impersonal spirit. He demands personal spiritual life, and consequently a living personal God, out of whom proceeds all power, and who is the active principle from whom all phenomena set forth”. Bowne was “the chief opponent of naturalism”, and Eucken suggests as a possible title for a thesis, “Bowne as an Opponent of the Materialists”. “Naturalists deny the metaphysical and take the visible as the basis of their so-called metaphysics. This is illogical, as it turns effect into cause.” Bowne goes on to develop “a metaphysics of theism. He does not simply posit certain truths of theism, but treats all these from a metaphysical standpoint, and this is of great value to-day in the field of philosophy”. “To-day” being 1915, process thought had not yet appeared; and my household Philosopher would refer with an airy wave of the hand to his own unwillingness to agree with absolutely all of Bowne and the other personalists. I suspect that this involved the necessary accommodations to be made to fold personalism into process thought. We can only speculate on what the early personalists would have had to say about the work of Whitehead, Hartshorne, and their followers.

To be continued. This is a long introductory chapter.


April 19, 2016

Furthermore Personal

We have been looking at Professor Rudolf Eucken’s introductory chapter to Ralph Tyler Flewelling’s Personalism and the Problems of Philosophy. Eucken observes: “While fundamental truths are eternal, man is still developing, and consequently these eternal truths must be manifested in the different stages of man’s development in different ways.” The underlying ideas do not change, but the way they are presented can and does change.

The old philosophy was established upon the universe as we understand it, and upon this doctrine was built up, and then life was explained according to that theory; whereas Bowne starts with life, out of which grows the world of experience, and upon this rests the doctrine, which must change as experience changes. (Page 27)

Eucken next comments:

James leads us back to the practical. So does Bowne, but with a different meaning, for with him, behind the practical stands the metaphysical. This is a new step in the development of philosophy. This “practical” is not that which means useful, nor that which rests upon utilitarian grounds. . . .
Bowne’s contention is that the spiritual basis of life is not new, but it becomes new in its forms of development. God does not develop, but it is man that changes and develops. (Page 28)

This somewhat foreshadows process thought, which holds that God is dipolar: the primordial aspect of God does not change, but because God is present in every occasion of experience, the consequent God grows as we grow.

So Bowne would have us hold no harsh or crude ideas of God’s relation to the world. . . . Bowne would have us believe, with modern Christians, that he created the world out of the fulness of his love. All religion and worship would be a form of love, and would mean the worship of a loving Being, not of a tyrant. (Page 29)

“Bowne”, continues Eucken, “urges that there are many ways of arriving at religion”. Some people “have the experience of perceiving God’s love all at once, whereupon a sudden change comes over the man’s whole nature”. In others this change “takes place more quietly”. So we should only judge “of the results. Religion leads to lives, not to theologies, for it is based upon the fundamental principles of life, and not upon temperament or environment.” Bowne’s ideas reconcile opposing views:

of earnest seriousness and happy enjoyment, of problems and conflicts, combined with hope and joyous courage. We must sympathize with the many forms of life and experience, with the serious and the merry; and our children should learn that they may combine the liberty of freedom and the soberness of earnest effort, both in their mental and in their spiritual development.
Dr. Bowne was a philosopher of America, and as such all America may be proud of him and of his memory. His strong personality showed itself in such vigorous effort; his humor was so happy and flashed forth so frequently in the midst of the most serious work, that moroseness and melancholy were impossible to him. He remained fresh and youthful in spirit to the end. Even in his last letter to me he seemed to be more than ever pervaded with a spirit of youth and joyous living. (Pages 30-31)

Now that sounds like a New Thoughter!

I know that this can get confusing as to who is speaking when, but it is worth your careful reading. The name New Thought for what had generally been referred to as mind cure did not come about until 1895. Flewelling (1871-1960) was writing on personalism in 1915; Bowne’s lectures were a few years earlier. At that time, Whitehead was still in England, teaching physics and working on Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. William James died in 1910, a year after our Henry (Henry Wood, 1834-1909); the influence of James was still very prevalent. New Thought historian Horatio Dresser had studied with James, and Dresser and Henry Wood were the two New Thought authors singled out for praise by James. The Fillmores with Unity were going strong, as was Divine Science with Malinda Cramer and Nona Brooks. Ernest Holmes (1887-1960) was one of the last New Thought founders to study with Emma Curtis Hopkins some years later, in 1925. Hopkins had broken with Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy some years earlier.

Holmes only studied with Hopkins briefly, but his recollections are vivid. It was much later that Holmes became acquainted with Flewelling, who had no doubt written a great deal in the intervening years, but our interest at the moment is in personalism and why it still deserves to be taken seriously in philosophy in general and New Thought in particular. I repeat: it is a floor, not a ceiling. However, it was Holmes as a “private student” of Flewelling who convinced Flewelling of the necessity for explaining his philosophical ideas in simple language! Fenwicke Holmes, his brother’s biographer, states: “He had been interested in a rather narrow field in connection with the general tenets of Religious Science as a transcendental philosophy of idealism, but he was unacquainted with the academic approach and the correlation with other major philosophies and their historic origin.” Flewelling became a popular lecturer at the Religious Science Institute. Sadly, Holmes continued to refer to God as “It”, but an It cannot love. Only a person can love. If we humans are persons, can our Creator be capable of less than we are?

To be continued.


April 26, 2016

Extremely Personal

Well, I finally went back and started working on the main body of the book by the first of the personalists, Borden Parker Bowne. Actually, it appears that George Holmes Howison (1836-1916) might just edge Bowne out with some writings on “personal idealism”. Howison established the philosophy department at the University of California, Berkeley. But I suspect that Bowne was the first to develop the idea fully, and that is what I propose to dip into at the moment. The challenge is to tantalize you with some bits of his philosophy without just dumping the whole book on your head. Maybe a few of you will seek to track it down and devour it eagerly.

Bowne’s book, Personalism, began life as a series of lectures at Northwestern University, long before I got there! This was the Harris lectures for 1907 and appears to be the first or second set in the series. The book appeared in 1908. The five lectures were:

I. Common Sense, Science, and Philosophy

II. The Problem of Knowledge

III. Phenomenality of the Physical World

IV. Mechanical or Volitional Causality

V. The Failure of Impersonalism

VI. The Personal World

I skimmed the first chapter/lecture sufficiently to establish that Bowne has a delightful, down-to-earth style of speaking/writing. Alan had marked a couple of passages, first:

Philosophy is simply an attempt to give an account of experience, or it is a man’s way of looking at things. The common-sense man finds a lot of bodies about him in space and a series of changes going on in time, and in these he rests as final. That is his philosophy. The materialist conceives that the world of experience can be explained by molecules and atoms, endowed with forces of attraction and repulsion which work forever through space and time. The agnostic holds that we can know nothing beyond phenomena. The causal power behind is forever hidden. That is his philosophy. The theist holds that the order of things can be explained only by an intelligent cause back of all appearance and manifestation. That is his philosophy. But every one has a philosophy of some sort, implicit or explicit, and commonly he is all the more controlled by it the less he is aware of its presence. . . . [T]here is a great deal of false and pernicious philosophizing. We might even say that strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth to philosophical insight, and few there be that find it; while wide is the gate and broad the way that leads to philosophical confusion and destruction, and many there be who go in thereat. But since we must have a philosophy, whether we will or not, it is important that we get the best. . . . The whole system of naturalistic thought, with its materialistic and atheistic tendencies, is but the outcome of the crude metaphysics of common sense, and it can be permanently overthrown only by discrediting that metaphysics. (Pages 4-6)

The other passage that Alan marked is:

Science discovers, describes, registers the facts; philosophy interprets them. It seeks to penetrate to the hidden seat of the power that underlies the world and to detect the secret meaning that animates it. Both the scientific and philosophic inquiry are equally necessary for the full satisfaction of the human mind . . . . (Page 41)

The second lecture deals extensively with Kant, who “inaugurated a new era in philosophy”. Alan has marked only three passages:

Before [Kant’s] time there had been two views respecting the origin of knowledge. One was that all knowledge is from experience. . . . The other view was that the mind may know many things independently of experience. The former view had been reduced to absurdity by Hume, and the latter view had run into a barren formalism in the hands of Leibnitz’s disciples. (Page 54)

“How is experience possible? Kant’s answer is well known. Experience is not something given ready-made from without, but is actively constructed by the mind within.”

To be continued.


May 3, 2016

More Extremely Personal

When last seen, we had bopped through the first two of Borden Parker Bowne’s lectures on personalism, which sort of set the stage for whatever was to come next. So, after a week’s rest, we are psyched and ready to explore “The Phenomenality of the Physical World”.When last seen, we had bopped through the first two of Borden Parker Bowne’s lectures on personalism, which sort of set the stage for whatever was to come next. So, after a week’s rest, we are psyched and ready to explore “The Phenomenality of the Physical World”.

Remember that Bowne indicated that the aim of his lectures was that our critical reflection would bring us back to personal metaphysics “that Comte rejected”: our own, rather than something that we borrowed from someone else.

This chapter begins with Bowne telling us that even though we actively construct an object for consciousness, we still have to consider the phenomenality of the physical world on the path to personalism. A sense object turns into a phenomenon when we reflect on it later. Bowne illustrates with a symphony performed by an orchestra:

However real the waves or the coexistent and successive sounds may be in themselves, it is not until they are united in a consciousness which grasps and unifies them all in one complex musical apprehension that the symphony exists or can exist. All that can take place in space or time in connection with such music is but the means for making the musical conception pass into act and revealing it to other consciousnesses, the audience; but the symphony itself exists primarily for the composer or performer, and secondarily for the audience, and all else is but a means for mediating the thought of the composer for the hearers. (Page 114)

We must admit this for not just a symphony, but for “anything whatever that has its existence successively, that is, in time. . . . Every such successive thing must be phenomenal, for, like the symphony, it exists and can exist only for and through intelligence.”

In space and time, Bowne emphasizes, “everything is flowing and changing”. Process thinkers, prick up your ears: fixed meaning “is only successively translated into the temporal form, and never really exists except for the mind, which by means of it masters the flowing succession. The symphony again illustrates the fact.” This foreshadows Whitehead’s description of a subject (the developing occasion of experience) turning into a object, which is lovingly preserved by God. “Things can be grasped by thought only as they are the products of thought”.

So many lovely quotations!

The same problem reappears in the debate between nominalism and realism, and this also admits only of an idealistic solution. The realist rightly holds that the particular is nothing except as the expression of an idea, and the nominalist rightly holds that the idea is nothing apart from concrete realization. . . . There can be no living experience without both elements, and there can be no experience apart from an immanent intelligence. (Page 119)

Bowne goes on to remind us of the old debate between the ancient Greek Eleatics, who excluded change ; and Heraclitus, who told us that we cannot step into the same river twice. The Eleatics held sway for several millennia, but Heraclitus is just now coming back into his own. We need, Bowne continues, to “distinguish between phenomenal and ontological reality, “Phenomenally . . . space and time are real, that is, they are valid in and for our experience . . . .”

Even epistemology “points out that space and time, however real they may be in themselves, cannot become real to us except as they are principles of thought or principles immanent in our mental operation.”

My household Philosopher’s only contribution to this discussion is to stick a bookmark in between two pages, and I can’t just dump two pages, nearly all one paragraph, into a short column! In the middle, I spot: “[W]e are not to think of this Supreme Intelligence as a rigid monotony of being, but rather as the perfect fullness of life, without temporal ebb or flow.” But “this non-temporality for God means essentially his absolute self-possession and lack of our human limitations which grow out of our dependence. . . . [Our] problem is to explain the world of experience, and this cannot be done by affirming a staticably [sic] immovable and intellectually monotonous being, but only by positing a self-sufficient, self-possessing, all-embracing intelligence, which, as such, is superior to our finite temporal limitations.

After some comments on “errors of materialism and atheism”, and the statement, “Nature itself is process, and it has continuity only for its cause and for the observer”, Bowne concludes the chapter:

For common sense the world of things is something which, for the present at least, exists by itself without any assistance from intelligence. But upon reflection it appears that this world is a function of intelligence in such a way that apart from intelligence it has neither existence nor even meaning. Space and time existence and self-conscious existence exhaust the possibilities for us. Any other conception is purely verbal and without any corresponding thought. But space and time existence is phenomenal only, existing only for and through intelligence. Thus the claim of personalism is being established. (Page 158)

To be continued. But if you are longing for more details from this chapter, the book is available free online in multiple formats here.


May 10, 2016

Still More Extremely Personal

Bowne’s fourth lecture on personalism does appear to have a face that only a philosopher could love: “Mechanical or Volitional Causality”. It runs for 57 pages, and your faithful correspondent read every one of them, mostly while enjoying bluebird weather on the swing on my lanai. Alan has left me no trail of breadcrumbs, no cash register receipts marking pages of particular interest. It strikes me as characteristic of one of the things that I find difficult about philosophy as a discipline: one seems to have to go over every thought that every philosopher ever had and every argument that the next philosopher refuted, from Thales on down. Couldn’t we just cut to the chase and see what is currently left standing? Well, but then we wouldn’t have rescued Heraclitus from the ash heap of history, and we wouldn’t be prepared to refute the terrible errors that we see all around us at present.

What I do see clearly in this chapter is arrows pointing to Whitehead’s process thought: Bowne is trembling on the brink. He has removed a great deal of brush from the trail to open a clear path. Going back to the beginning, I see that he has provided us with an advance organizer, a “synthesis in retrospect”:

The world may be considered from the standpoint of contents and meaning. From this point of view a world of rational contents and meanings leads us to affirm a supreme reason behind it all as its essential source and abiding condition. The meanings we find are really there for intelligence, but they are only there through intelligence. But the world must be regarded also from the standpoint of causality. It is not merely an idea, it is also a deed. It is not merely a presentation to us which ends in itself, it is also a revelation of the cosmic activity of the Supreme Will. (Page 159)

But “the world has a history and an existence apart from us”, so we can’t stop here. We have to consider all the various kinds of causality, and yet “this category also vanishes in contradiction until raised to the personal plane”. Bowne admits that all this is extremely complex, so I will leave it to the black-belt philosophers to pursue; and they will thoroughly enjoy this entire chapter. We don’t need metaphysics to operate in the fields of electricity, chemistry, or astronomy. “We need only to know the rules according to which the work is done. Milton had an angel leading the earth around the sun”, and astronomers could do fine with the angel instead of some theory of central forces, “provided of course the angel brought his accelerations and motions under the law of the relative masses and the inverse square of the distance. In that case the astronomer could locate the angel as well as the planet”. This just locates causation in another realm; it does not deny it. Too many people still believe that if something cannot be dealt with by science, it does not exist.

Romping past Kant and Hume, Bowne continues through the ins and outs of various arguments and bringing in an extensive discussion of time and how it relates to causality, or not:

In the very old days, when animals had the gift of speech, the cat waited on the owl to know what philosophy deals with. The owl replied, “Philosophy considers such questions as this: “Which was first, the hen or the egg?” “Why,” said the cat, “that question admits of no answer.” “Of course not,” rejoined the owl, “and for that I give the gods very great thanks. For only consider: what would we philosophers have to do if the question were settled?” (Pages 185-186)

Several theories later, “We have a kind of metaphysical vermiform peristalsis, or peristaltism, in which nothing worms itself along from nothing to nothing, and is mistaken for something on the way.” All that we can get from this is “the conviction that causality must be affirmed, but that it cannot be conceived in the mechanical and temporal form.” Terrific. “Thus we see that the way of mechanical causality is hard.” But then we come to freedom and open another can of worms. “Freedom itself has the deepest speculative significance for reason and science, as well as for morals and religion.” Are we truly free in any meaningful way, or are things predetermined one way or another?

The abstract treatment of the subject has led to the fancy that the free person must be indifferent to all considerations of wisdom and knowledge. . . . There is nothing in his freedom to hinder his acting rationally or to excuse him for acting irrationally; but how he will act . . . [finds] its sufficient ground . . . also in the mystery of self-determinism. And this is something which cannot be mechanically analyzed or deduced as a necessary resultant—it can only be experienced. The attempt to analyze it contradicts it. The attempt to construct it denies it. It can only be recognized as the central factor of personality, the condition of responsibility, and the basis of the moral life. Criticism cannot hope to construe it; it can only point it out as a fact, and show that the objections to it rest only on an imperfect understanding of thought itself.
Persons untrained in philosophic reflection will likely think that this view makes a poor foundation for science and philosophy, but they must be told that really it is the best foundation there is; and apart from closet intimidations it is good enough, and it works well enough in practice. (Pages 209-210)

Well, Bowne warned us that it was complex. It gets worse:

Our confidence in the orderliness of nature is really of a semi-ethical character, and so far as its existence as a mental fact is concerned, it is less a logical warrant than a psychological expectation. We give up, then, the whole scientific apparatus, from mechanics on, as anything ontological, and hold it only for its practical value in mastering experience. The fancy that it is reality itself, the true existence and dynamics of the universe, has been definitely set aside.
Now, it is not science proper that opposes this view, but dogmatism; and this dogmatism understands neither itself nor its problems. (Page 212)

He is starting to wind things up, having headed for “this theistic point of view”:

When we combine this view with the subjectivity and relativity of time, we are freed from all the puzzles about the finitude or infinitude of the universe. Science is permitted to discover all it can about the space and time relations of events, and philosophy is permitted to discover all it can about the power and purpose behind events, but neither is permitted to erect the forms of our experience into absolute existences which would make experience itself impossible. (Page 213)

This has taken us back to “our transcendental empiricism. Intellect explains everything but itself.” I seem to remember from somewhere in my checkered academic experience that a class cannot be a member of itself. Maybe intellect is a place to stand while moving the earth. Anyway, Bowne wants to “make active intelligence the basal fact[;] all other facts become luminous and comprehensible, at least in their possibility, and intelligence knows itself as their source and explanation.” And here is where he was heading all along:

When we consider the world as an object of knowledge, we come to personalism as the only tenable view. When we consider it from the standpoint of causality, we come equally to personalism as the only tenable view.

To be continued. 57 pages down to 2 ½ is not too shabby, though. The next chapter is much shorter and contains one clue from Alan.


May 17, 2016

Totally Committedly Personal

Lecture V of Borden Parker Bowne’s Harris lectures on the topic of personalism delivered at Northwestern University in 1907 is titled “The Failure of Impersonalism”. Bowne has nailed his own colors to his own mast and is standing at attention, watching impersonalism sink beneath the waves. This might seem just a bit supererogatory to some:

Impersonalism might rightly be ruled out, on the warrant of our previous studies. We have seen that when our fundamental philosophic principles are impersonally and abstractly taken, they disappear either in contradiction or in empty verbalism. In all our thinking, when critically scrutinized, we find self-conscious and active intelligence the presupposition not only of our knowledge but of the world of objects as well. We might, then, rest our case and demand a verdict. Pedagogically, however , it seems better to continue the case. The naturalistic obsession is not easily overcome, and it takes time to form right habits of thinking, even when the truth is recognized. The present lecture, then, is devoted to showing somewhat more in detail the shortcomings of impersonal philosophy. (Page 216)

One form of impersonalism comes from “the sense-bound mind”, which “sees a great variety of extra-mental, impersonal things in the world” and turns them into “the basal fact of existence. In this way naturalism arises, with its mechanical way of thinking and its materialistic and atheistic tendencies.” Over a hundred years later, we still see so much of this.

“The other form of impersonalism arises through the fallacy of the abstract. Uncritical minds always attempt to explain the explanation, thus unwittingly committing themselves to the infinite regress.” This, says Bowne, “is a species of idealistic impersonalism. In its origin it is antipodal to naturalism, but in the outcome the two often coincide.”

Just to complicate things, “naturalism may have two meanings. It may be a principle of scientific method, and it may be a philosophic doctrine.” Since the first definition is “about identical with science itself . . . we do not mean the failure of scientific naturalism, for this is one of humanity’s best friends.” Philosophical naturalism is a horse of a different color: “This is not a science, but a philosophy, and it has to be subjected to philosophical criticism in order to estimate its value.” In other words, these are trained philosophers; do not attempt this at home. So we will tiptoe out of the room and return a few pages later:

[I]f the naturalistic explanation is to be of any use to us, it must go beyond these superficial generalities of classification, and must descend into the realm of causation, and also give account of the specific peculiarities or differentia of concrete things. And here difficulties begin to thicken. (Page 229)

We’ll let Bowne and the philosophers in his audience wrestle with those difficulties and resume with definitions of evolution, which many people still think is a dirty word. Let’s pin it down:

The two conceptions of evolution, evolution as a description of the phenomenal order and evolution as a doctrine of causation, have never been sufficiently distinguished by the rank and file of speculators in this field. They have taken the phenomenal order for the causal order, and have seldom raised the question as to what their evolution really means and what its conditions may be. (Pages 242-3)

The problem here is that we are either locked into “a notion of pure being”, leaving us no way of trying to understand anything, or “a definite system of law” in which “everything is determined from the beginning” or “from everlasting”. Either way, we’re stuck: “We can only oscillate between the present actuality and the past potentiality . . .”

It just gets worse:

The whole question of the transformation of species has been equally confused in naturalistic discussion. There are really two questions to be considered. One is, Can existing organic forms be genetically traced to earlier forms so that the lines of descent as we go backward converge to some common origin, as the branches of a tree all meet in a common trunk? The other question is, What are the individual things themselves, and what is the power that produces them? The former question belongs to science, the latter belongs to philosophy. (Pages 248-9)

Bowne assures us, “The second question is the only one of any real importance.” Cutting to the chase: “We find naturalism, then entirely in its right when it seeks to give a description of the phenomenal order according to which things have appeared, but we find it as a philosophy exceedingly superficial and uncritical.” Hence, “Naturalism may be dismissed as a failure. It remains to show that impersonalism as idealism is equally so.” Which, of course, he does.

Starting to wind down, Bowne recalls “our doctrine of transcendental empiricism. The meaning and possibility of these terms must finally be found in experience itself, and not in any abstract philosophizing.” All impersonal philosophy runs into contradictions that continue into the absolute, “unless it be personally conceived. Otherwise the absolute is simply a deus ex machina kept strictly behind the scenes, and worked only by stage direction from the manager. . . . The law of the sufficient reason, which is supposed to demand causation, always shuts us up to barren tautology when impersonally taken.”

So, “impersonalism is a failure whether in the low form of materialistic mechanism or in the abstract form of idealistic notions, and . . . personality is the real and only principle of philosophy which will enable us to take any rational step whatever. We are not abstract intellects nor abstract wills, but we are living persons, knowing and feeling and having various interests . . . .” Bowne adds, “Personality can never be construed as a product or compound; it can only be experienced as a fact. . . . The essentially impersonal can never by any logical process other than verbal hocus-pocus, which is not logical after all, be made the sufficient reason for a personal development.” Our existence boils down to dependence on “the living will and purpose of the Creator”. Process thought would certainly add that we play a vital role in this.

Here is where this lecture wraps up, and here is where Alan stuck the bookmark:

The objections to affirming a Supreme Person are largely verbal. Many of them are directed against a literal anthropomorphism. This, of course, is a man of straw. Man himself in his essential personality is as unpicturable and formless as God. Personality and corporeality are incommensurable ideas. The essential meaning of personality is selfhood, self-consciousness, self-control, and the power to know. These elements have no corporeal significance or limitations. Any being, finite or infinite, which has knowledge and self-consciousness and self-control, is personal; for the term has no other meaning. Laying aside, then, all thought or corporeal form and limitation as being no factor of personality, we must really say that complete and perfect personality can be found only in the Infinite and Absolute Being, as only in Him can we find that complete and perfect selfhood and self-possession which are necessary to the fullness of personality. (Pages 266-7).

The Supreme Person does not have “the limitations and accidents of our human personality, which are no necessary part of the notion of personality, and think only of the fullness of power, knowledge, and selfhood which alone are the essential factors of the conception.”

Impersonalism is, then, “doubly a failure”. It has no “positive foundation of its basal conceptions”. And it gives no insight “into the problems of experience, . . . nothing but tautology and infinite regress. Such a theory surely does not pay expenses. The alternative is personalism or nothing.”

To be continued.


May 24, 2016

The Personal World

This final lecture of the series by Borden Parker Bowne makes some final important distinctions and leaves us with a bit of anchoring for future explorations into this controversial but valuable area. Bowne begins by lamenting:

One great difficulty in bringing popular thought to better philosophical insight lies in its bondage to sense objects. Things that can be seen and handled are preeminently real, and there is always a tendency to think that only such things are real. In this state of mind it is exceedingly difficult for any doctrine of idealistic type even to get a hearing, as it seems so plainly absurd. Some relief from this obsession may be obtained by pointing out how large a proportion of our human life is even now invisible and impalpable. In this way the sense-bound mind may be made more hospitable to the thought of invisible and non-spatial existence in general. (Page 268)

If it was that bad in 1907, it is even worse today. Despite the breakthroughs of quantum physics and other scientific revelations, those who only pay lip service to science and its principles continue to ridicule such notions as mind power even in the face of hard evidence that a leukemia patient could deliberately and repeatedly raise and lower her own white blood cell count. Unable to refute such evidence, they discount it or simply ignore it. Bowne elaborates on the notion, “we ourselves are invisible”. “What is the shape of the spirit? or what the length and breadth of the soul? Fortunately, “we seldom abstract from our knowledge of personality so as to see simply what sense can give”. Literature “does not exist in space or time or books or libraries, but solely in the invisible and non-spatial world of ideas and consciousness”. All that the eyes could see in a library would be “black marks on white paper . . . . [L]iterature has its existence only in mind and for mind as an expression of mind, and is simple impossible and meaningless abstraction from mind.” Similar examples can be made of history and government. “Our life now actually goes on in the invisible, and that space has only a symbolical function with respect to this hidden life.” Man is “an inhabitant of the invisible world . . . but naturalism, in its sense bondage, misses all this, and seeks for man in the picture world of space images . . . .” Beginning to sum up, “A world of persons with a Supreme Person at the head is the conception to which we come as the result of our critical reflections.”

There are still problems and “pernicious errors”: “Metaphysics shows that we cannot explain the existence and community of the many without affirming a fundamental reality which is truly one, and which produces and coordinates the many”. But, Bowne warns, “the pantheistic view . . . has insuperable difficulties”, getting us into “psychological contradiction”, which, if we insist on it, “then reason simply commits suicide”, for God “blunders in our blundering” and “contradicts himself in the multitudinous inconsistencies of our thinking. Thus error, folly, and sin are all made divine, and reason and conscience as having authority vanish”.

Bowne continues into a discussion of religion, which “we must consider . . . in its great historical manifestations”, not “the dim imaginings of undeveloped men”. It is not

something that has significance only for the future life; for religion is clearly seen to have profound significance for this life, either for good or evil. There are religions that debase and defile; there are religions that industrially cripple and politically paralyze the people. The forces that make for evil or for obstruction have in many cases incarnated themselves in the people’s religion, and there can be little industrial progress, or social development, or political improvement, until the grip of these religions has been broken. And, on the other hand, religion may be a great source of progress, of illumination, of inspiration, both for the individual and for the people. (Page 287)

Bowne adds:

God is not made good by the Christian revelation, but only declared and shown to be good; he has always been good; he has always been the Father Almighty, and has always had purposes of grace concerning his children, whether they knew him or not. . . . The God who has been dealing with all past generations is the God of grace whom our Lord has revealed, and they are still in his hands, whether in this world or in any other. (Page 289)
[W]hen intellect is asleep almost anything can be made a religious object, but when intellect is awake and alert and thought has done its work, it then becomes impossible for the intellect to worship any being lower than the Highest. (Page 293)

People whose religion is “mechanical devices of ritual and the repetition of verbal forms”, which “appear to be the sum of their religion”. This is really a form of idolatry, because there is no real spiritual change or growth. Also, “not only must the object of worship be supreme reason and supreme righteousness, it must also be supreme goodness”, taking us from “the somewhat negative conception of righteousness into the positive conception of ethical love. . . . If God is to be of any religious value to us and an object of real and adoring worship, he must be supremely good.” Many gods from many religious has been “indifferent and selfish”, including the gods of theology and philosophy:

We cannot believe in man without believing in God, and we cannot believe in God without believing in man. God’s goodness would disappear if the religion did not mean our highest life and blessing; and if our life is to end with the visible scene and we are to be cast aside like the worn-out straw sandals of the coolies, then religion itself collapses; the universe is a failure, and God is a failure, too. (Page 300)

After another brief visit with Hume, Kant, and Berkeley, Bowne tackles psychology, where “theories about the facts have very largely been substituted for the facts, and various metaphors, drawn from the physical realm, have wrought no small damage. . . . Thus language has been a great source of aberration in psychology.” Further, “we tend to think of things under space forms and to substitute the body for the personality”.

Near the end of the chapter, someone (probably Alan) has pencil-marked a beautiful summation:

Philosophy replaces the infinitely far God by the God who is infinitely near, and in whom we live and move and have our being. But for the practical realization of this divine presence, logic and speculation can do little for us. This belief must be lived to acquire any real substance or controlling character. This is the case with all practical and concrete beliefs. If we ignore them practically we may soon accost them skeptically; and they vanish like a fading gleam. Or we may build them into life and organize our lives around them, and they become “truths that wake to perish never.” “To as many as receive him, to them gives he power to become the sons of God.” (Pages 325-6)

To be continued. Next week, we shall examine what Ralph Tyler Flewelling, the philosopher whom New Thought founder Ernest Holmes admired, had to say about personalism.


May 31, 2016

The Changing Mood of the Age

We are picking up the thread we dropped earlier: Personalism and the Problems of Philosophy (1915) by Ralph Tyler Flewelling, a philosopher whom Ernest Holmes admired and who wrote for New Thought publications. Flewelling was one of the personalist philosophers at Boston University. He wrote this work as “an appreciation of the work of Borden Parker Bowne”, and his first chapter was written—as we have seen—by Rudolph Eucken, another personalist philosopher and admirer of Bowne. This series on personalism began on March 29, and you may want to scroll down for a review. I have endeavored—in fear and trembling—to bring a quick overview of this magnificent work of philosophy back to the attention of contemporary philosophy because it provides a background for process philosophy. Without personhood, we are but sounding brass or tinkling cymbal. These off-the-beaten-path philosophers are significant for New Thought in order to keep us in touch with reality/actuality (the Philosopher and I used to wrangle a bit over those terms).

So here we go. We have already looked at Eucken’s introductory chapter, so now we shall peruse the second introductory chapter by Flewelling himself: “The Changing Mood of the Age: Dominance of the Practical in Modern Life”. (In case philosophy is not your native language, modern has now ceded place to postmodern for lack of a more imaginative term.) This chapter bristles with wonderful passages that I cannot improve upon. So I propose to simply pick a few of them out and set them forth for your delectation:

Whatever men build, whether it be of brick and stone, institutions of government and civilization, or systems of thought and education, the sense of dependence upon the Eternal, the attitude toward the things not seen, will inevitably write itself into all their work. (Page 33)
The human spirit is so constituted that when man must take up an heroic struggle, in which life and the most precious interests are daily put in jeopardy, his dreams and faiths exalt him to the skies. When these material things and the external forms for which he fought seem forever assured, he is plunged into doubt and morbid self-examination by his unsatisfied soul.
To understand the philosophical mood of our own age it is necessary to keep in mind the dominating elements in our material progress. The prevalence of scientific investigation and the growth of the scientific spirit have given us a hitherto unknown environment for our thought. With the mastery of physical forces the old horror of nature has passed. With it has gone a great deal that was merely tradition, prejudice, and superstition. Beyond the borders of childhood we live in no magic world. Laws of nature are to us as an open book and in many minds the only book possessing any authority. . . . There is to be nothing left at which to wonder. . . . The most startling discoveries in nature provoke but a momentary enthusiasm. We are masters of nature. (Pages 34-35)
The discoveries of the past generation have revolutionized the world of commerce and labor. The comforts and luxuries of life have vastly increased. Great fortunes have resulted, and with them an overwhelming eagerness to discover the sesame of wealth. The contribution of science to this new world of material things has elevated scientific dogma into unquestioned power. The greatest criticism and deepest slur . . . is the criticism and the slur of being unscientific. Little room is left for the aesthetic, the idealistic, or the spiritual. . . . The demands made upon all departments of life have thus become intensely practical and utilitarian. What does it accomplish? How great are the returns? These are the questions that are constantly asked, not only in the world of economics, but also in the worlds of philosophy and religion. The demand of pragmatism is the demand of the modern spirit elevated into a test for truth. And this demand is not without its basis of sanity and justice. (Pages 36-37)
[T]he ancient battle between materialism and idealism has raged since the days of the Greek philosophers, and not until our own generation have the conflicting arguments been sufficiently sifted and analyzed to show that neither bald materialism nor absolute idealism can present a possible solution to the enigma of the universe.


We have to-day the natural successors of idealism, who cling to the thought of unity, thrust out by time and criticism from the ancient peace of an absolutism whose only ultimate reality is the divine Spirit, hard pressed to answer the problem of evil. If all we see is the manifestation of the Divine, whence comes evil in the world? This is the insistent question cast at the spokesmen of idealism. Thinking men are impatient of any denial of the reality of pain, evil, or sorrow, in an effort to save the character of God. The sense of suffering and injustice is more acute than ever in the history of the world. A God that will cause suffering, pain, and evil they will repudiate. Even that human being seems a monster who will not do his best to alleviate misery of every sort. How much more will they despise a Supreme Being as obtuse to moral responsibility as to create men for pain! The supreme question of the age for idealism as well as for Theism is how to maintain a Moral Causal Intelligence in the face of existent evil and suffering. . . . A cursory examination will show . . . that it is no longer possible for materialism to imagine that she speaks in terms of universe. Even the most obtuse materialist is to-day forced to admit a power and a reality, which, whether he knows or not, is not provided for in his system. He has before him the expedient of a dualism somewhat after the fashion of Mr. [Henri] Bergson’s, or he may resort with Mr. [William] James to a pluralistic world. (Pages 41-42)


The new task of philosophy is the reconciliation of these contrasting views. . . . In the realization of this new task of philosophy we believe that the future will have to reckon with the work of one of our foremost philosophers whom Rudolph Eucken is pleased to call a “world philosopher.” His purpose was to show how the contrasting and apparently irreconcilable questions might find solution and common ground in the recognition of personality. . . . To show the implications of this theory with relation to the different phases of thought is the purpose of this volume.

To be continued. Next week we shall examine the chapters on naturalism.


June 7, 2016

Greek Phantoms, Evaded Problems, and Naturalism

The first section of Flewelling’s book proper is titled Naturalism, but it takes him two preliminary chapters to set the table for Bowne’s opinion of naturalism, which is not very high.

In “The modern spell of a Greek phantom”, he points out that humans have always sought a sense of unity, either from “material protoplasm from which all things have developed, or in a final ground of divine Thought or Purpose”, which boil down to materialism or idealism. The ancient Greeks bought into the atoms and Leucippus as their contribution to modern science: “To the thoughtful it is at once apparent that with the materialist the atom is endowed with that magic and with those undiscoverable powers which the idealist ascribes to a World-Soul, or Divine Intelligence.” It gets worse with the “the famous maxim loved by the modern Humanist, ‘Man is the measure of all.’”

We continue through Democritus, Plato (Whitehead considered Western history “a series of footnotes to Plato”), and on into Epicurus and the Stoics. “Epicurus was weak in his conception of the necessary causation of mechanical forces . . . . [but he denied] altogether the existence of purpose in matter.” This wouldn’t have helped science much, “but fortunately the Stoics preserved that which the Epicureans lacked of Democritus’ doctrine. Through their pantheistic conception of the Deity as the “vital principle” they arrived at belief in an absolute causal necessity. Thus they continued that which the Epicureans had lost in the shuffle—the idea of a universal reign of law. [The Philosopher was sort of a closet Stoic, but tweaked as he went.]

When at last the long reign of Neoplatonism and scholasticism was ended by he shock of discovery and renaissance, it was the complementary ideas of mechanical causation and reign of law that proved so potent to the new generation of scientific investigators. (Pages 54-55)

But the struggle continued: “[T]he syllogistic form of reasoning introduced by Aristotle had spent its force and had sown its inadequacy to deal singlehanded with practical problems. The world had grown tired of the weary round of dialectic. The reaction was for that reason all the more intense. But the tool [mechanical causation coupled with the reign of law] was yet to be perfected. (Page 55)

We continue through Bruno, Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes, but it still hasn’t gotten us to the unity mankind has always sought. “Why should Greek atomism, lying at the basis of the modern discovery of nature, receive the unworthy title of ‘phantom’? For this reason: while it has furnished an invaluable method of procedure in investigation, its leading postulates are yet unproved.”

Perhaps the most humorous thing in the history of philosophy—if humor can ever be said to invade so dreary a realm—is the attempt of naturalism to account for thought and will, decrying the vagueness and abstraction of the idealist, and at the same moment introducing into its conception of the atom the illusory, magical, and abstract powers which it condemns in the God of its opponents. . . . The materialist may prefer a God whose magic powers can all be confined in a test tube, but there will always remain some who cannot discover folly in believing in a God both immanent and transcendent . . . . (Page 58)

Rolling along into “The Evaded Problems of Spencer’s Philosophy”, we take a look at “the now generally discredited system of Herbert Spencer”. Let’s make it a quick look: “Because he was the spokesman for the naturalistic school; because he long held sway over the popular mind as the representative of scientific thinking; and because it was Bowne who early called attention to the metaphysical inconsistencies of his position”, Flewelling gives him an entire chapter. Spencer did attempt to unify science and religion with his version of evolution, which was a lot of his appeal at the time, but by 1915, Flewelling is flatly stating that even “the naturalistic school itself now sees the untenability of Spencer’s favorite positions.” So rather than flogging a dead horse, let us move along to “Bowne as an Antagonist of Naturalism” and try to sum things up a bit.

I will quote the beginning of this chapter for the sake of those like me who are not black belts in philosophy; it is a neat summary:

The real import of any system of thought eventually rests with its doctrine of reality. In regard to the nature of reality we have noted the two great antagonistic streams of thought. Under the first category are included those thinkers who assume matter as the basal reality. It make little difference whether they proceed upon the theory of magical and metaphysical atoms endowed with energy, motion, and force, or whether they conceal the metaphysical drift of their arguments by the assumption of vital impulses, reactions, affinities, selection, or what not. In the end the sufficiency of all such theories will be found to lie in the ignoring of a part of the problem. Disaster is avoided only by refusal to carry the problem to its logical conclusion. Such is the end of all materialism. (Pages 73-74)

Flewelling then proceeds to mow down Plato, Aristotle (Plato’s pupil, who noted the “gulf in Plato’s world between the ideal and the actual and attempted to bridge it”), and the naturalist: “From the opposite direction, the absolute idealist encounters difficulty with the problem of evil. If thought in man is simply a reflection of God’s thought, the burden of all evil and malicious thinking, error, superstition, and baseless fears is laid upon the Infinite Mind.” Oops! Alan always emphasized the kernels of truth to be found in all these philosophies, but we still need to clean house and move on.

Bowne, says Flewelling, has escaped the problem of error with his idea that “the essence of reality is simply causal activity”; in other words, “The world of things depends upon the causal activity of a Divine Personality.” However, “while Bowne has by this process escaped the problem of error, he has not been so fortunate with the problem of evil”, although “under the order of Personalism evil is no longer the necessary expression of the fundamental reality, nor is it loaded upon the Divine Will. It is, rather, an attendant upon the granting of freedom to responsible human personalities, it being more dear to the Divine to secure moral character than to create an otherwise perfect but morally irresponsible world.”

Moving right along:

Naturalism can secure nothing more than a phenomenal world. If the stories of atoms gives us perception, and chemical or molecular change in the cells of the brain is alone responsible for ideas, we are still at loss to explain how molecular charges can give us thought, and a knowledge of the world of relations. (Pages 77-78)

“We can affirm the order in which events will occur without making any metaphysical assumptions at all. The efficient cause of the action and interaction of the natural order is the Divine Personality establishing his own laws of procedure.”

The old boys wouldn’t have cared for this.

The human personality, being able to relate a succession of causes and effects to itself, and standing outside the mechanical circle, becomes measurably an efficient cause. But the human personality in order to preserve the integrity of its own thought bulks back on an eternal thinking Personality through which it finds its synthesis with the world of things and persons. Thus the human personality, introducing an unaccounted factor into the realm of nature, gives a hint of the place of the Divine Personality in this order. If this uncaused and purposive personal element be left out, we can have no efficient causation and no real progress. . . . Any World-Ground capable of real causation, not itself involved in the atomic flux, must be personal as well as intelligent. (Pages 81-82)

Flewelling, our New Thought personalist, concludes:

[A]ny system of mechanical explanation falls inevitably into difficulty with the problem of evil, as well as with the problem of error. If all thinking and action is caused by atomic motion, then we are bound to a system of necessity, and moral action becomes impossible. . . .
By positing all causal efficiency as arising from personality, place is left for the existence of error and evil without offending the human sense of moral obligation or erecting error into the plane of truth, or of burdening the Deity with responsibility for evil. . . . [M]an is a moral being and so constituted that the existence of evil is forever an offense . . further, the problem can be met only on the arena of action and solved only in the individual life. (Pages 82-83)

I cannot resist pointing out that the term “natural” as used on food packages is now being assessed by vested interests who have weaseled their way onto regulatory boards, because the word has become totally empty of meaning and become—yes, a weasel word. Henry Drummond (“Scottish Henry”) has a lot of positive contribution here, and I refer you back to the earlier series of posts concerning him and his work. Our Henry (Henry Wood (1834-1909) was a great admirer of Scottish Henry. Drummond (1851-1897) was an evangelist, writer, and lecturer on natural science, see September 25, 2012.

To be continued.


June 14, 2016

From Kant to Lotze and Bowne

Flewelling has now moved into his section on idealism. We begin with the Kantian starting point: “Has the Mind a Task in Experience?” Basically, yes:

Kant’s great contribution to the world of thought was his discovery that the mind has a task in experience. He affirmed truly when he declared that his work would make as great a change in the outlook of philosophy as had the discoveries of Copernicus in the field of astronomy. (Page 87)

It was Kant who made the great leap away from the idea of the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank slate: “Kant showed that every experience was due to the constitutive activity of the mind itself, as well as to the impressions of the outside world.” He showed that time and space were fundamental realities, but were merely “the forms under which the thinking mind relates the world of things and events to itself and to each other.”

The weakness in Kant’s position lay in the fact that he took account only of the subjective side of this activity of the mind. It is well enough for me to say that time and space are only the forms under which I think, but are they peculiar to me? Do they not exist apart from my thinking? How may I be sure that the time and space which I think will correspond to that which others think? Kant’s failure to answer these questions vitiated his system. It becomes at once apparent that both time and space must possess some objective validity to free them from the disjunctive caprice of the individual and make possible a world united in space and time relations. This Kant did not give us. (Page 89)

Bowne, as Flewelling notes,

was too close to the practical in his thinking not to see that the forms of time and space must be true for the object of thought as well as for the thinker. The world of things and of intelligences correspond each to each because all are comprehended in a Supreme Intelligence from which they acquire their meaning and reality. (Page 90)

So, “Where can we find a permanent world?” “What lies behind the appearance of things?” “Can we ‘Prove’ the World of Spirit?” Bowne, says Flewelling, sums up thus:

Assuming the legitimacy of life and of our human instincts, we may ask ourselves what life implies; and Kant says it implies God, freedom, and immortality, as postulates without which the mind would fall into discord with itself and life would lose itself in inner contradiction. We may then hold these postulates, not as something given by the speculative reason, but as something rooted in life. (Page 97)

So here we go, into the Absolute Philosophy of Lotze and Bowne. (For all you non-philosophers like me, Rudolph Hermann Lotze was a German philosopher under whom our own semi-adopted New Thought philosopher Ralph Tyler Flewelling studied in the 1870s. Flewelling also studied under our Personalist hero, Borden Parker Bowne, in Bean Town at B. U. ) Bowne once wrote to his wife, “I largely agree with Lotze, but I transcend him. I hold half of Kant’s system but sharply dissent from the rest. There is a strong smack of Berkeley’s philosophy, with a complete rejection of his theory of knowledge. I am a Personalist, the first of the clan in any thoroughgoing sense.” Philosophers’ wives, as I can attest, frequently function like the faithful Indian guide: “Him say....”

Lotze was the first to successfully refute the absolute idealism of Hegel. Nevertheless, he was himself to be counted among the idealists. He hoped to harmonize the differences between modern scientific thought and that romantic idealism which had so largely characterized the metaphysics of the preceding generation. . . . It was Lotze’s aim to grant perception, or empirical knowledge of nature, its place in thought. (Page 98)

Lotze was opposed to “the closed system of idealism where everything was so ordered in the eternal thought that there could by no possibility enter in any factors which had not already been determined before the world was, and which relegated freedom to the realm of shadow and make-believe. . . . He concluded . . . that the world is something more than an eternal thought....”

Lotze tried to escape absolute idealism “by looking toward the Good as the supreme end.” So for him, “the Supreme Good is the ultimate Reality in whose existence all other realities find their ground.” Bowne is definitely indebted to Lotze. Both agreed on “the difference between the practical field of science and the speculative field of metaphysics”. Harking back to Kant, “They held that science is properly limited to the order of coexistence and sequence in phenomena with reference to the practical issues. To metaphysics alone is assigned the realm of efficient causality.” Further, “Both discerned the folly of an attempt to understand nature simply by a method of classification. . . . Classification is a method of intelligence the better to handle its materials. Classification in no wise changes the things classified or reveals their back-lying reality.” Both defended naturalism, up to a point: “Instead of naturalism being free from the dark realm of magic and unaccountable powers, she is rather the high priestess of superstition with her powerful demiurges of atoms.” Both “saw the impossibility of assuming the absentee God of absolute idealism . . . working at cross purposes in a disjointed world....”

They saw that neither pluralism which springs from atomism not the pantheism which springs from Absolutism was sufficient to explain the world and leave place . . . for individuality . . . and . . . for freedom.
They were alike in recognizing the absurdities which left Absolutism in the clouds. . . .
Bowne possessed Lotze’s view concerning the barren round of mechanical causation assumed by materialism, in which there can be no possibility of progress, no chance for the introduction of unique factors of advance. They were one likewise in recognition of the corresponding weakness of an Absolute who contained all in himself, and in whom was buried also all possibility of human freedom, that novelty that forever spells progress in the history of the individual and the race. (Pages 104-105)

So we’re ready for the transcendence. Flewelling comments, “Bowne overcame the weaknesses inherent in Lotze’s system and carried it out to a more logical conclusion.” Here are the high spots:

Bowne’s definition of reality was not only more clear and simple, but also more profound. With him reality is that which can act or be acted upon. Thus he makes way for matter and mind and God.
Bowne carried the [continuity] up to secure footing and made the relation of thought and thing clear. He affirmed that the desired continuity can be found alone in personality. . . . The universe finds its unit in the thought of a Supreme Personality, himself the unchanging cause of change.
Thus Lotze’s vague Purpose of the Supreme Good, which he considers the fundamental reality, gives way to a Person who is also the World-Ground. . . .In this way the idea with which Lotze began was given a new and richer and more powerful content. (Pages 106-107)

And the differences?

Herein is the chief point of difference between Lotze and Bowne. Lotze stops short of asserting personality of the World-Ground and leaves the fundamental reality only less vague than Hegel’s absolute. Bowne presses on to the assertion of personality in the World-Ground with all that such an assertion implies. He thus carries the metaphysical problem up into religion and is able thereby to bring about that very reconciliation between science and religion which was Lotze’s own aim. (Page 108)

Flewelling gives Bowne the last word in this chapter in an extended quotation:

The only reality is God and his progressively unfolding plan and purpose and work, and the world of finite spirits. In this case also we should have a relativity but not an illusion, a validity of knowledge within the sphere which finds its ground and warrant in the plan and purpose of the Creator. (Page 109)

Whitehead, his colleagues, and his disciples will go on to build on this. Meanwhile, I shall continue to share my fleeting glimpses of their 1915 precursors.

To be continued.


June 21, 2016

Pragmatism, William James vs. Bowne’s

In case you just wandered in, we are now up to the section on pragmatism in a book by personalist philosopher Ralph Tyler Flewelling, whom New Thought founder (Religious Science, Science of Mind) Ernest Holmes greatly admired. The personalism series began on March 29, 2016. The book we are currently examining is titled Personalism and the Problems of Philosophy (1915). The pragmatism section is divided into two chapters: “The Unmetaphysical Pragmatism of William James” and “Bowne’s Pragmatism: A Step in the Development of Philosophy”.

Pragmatism goes back to the ancient Greeks. It was a “doctrine of relativity” that allowed any cause to be “championed according to the necessities of the case or to one’s whim”. “Such a doctrine of relativity . . . raised to a sovereign position, . . . becomes the deadly enemy of everything great and true” according to Eucken. “Modern pragmatism”, states Flewelling, “applies the thought of value, not primarily to the moral and aesthetic, as did the Stoics, but to reality itself”. The Metaphysical Club was founded in 1872 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce to discuss philosophy in the wake of the American Civil War, which left people from North and South alike tattered and disheartened. For more on the subject, read Louis Menand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club (2001). This is not to be confused with the Metaphysical Club of Boston, founded in 1895 by the Dressers, Henry Wood (1834-1909), and others later to be known as New Thoughters.

James “justly balks at the vague abstractions of the definition of truth given by the rationalists”. A disillusioned world was moving away from idealism toward what they considered to be realism. But, says Flewelling, “While we sympathize with him in his revolt from any attempt at making truth a mere abstraction, we cannot be blind to the commission of the same error of abstraction by James himself”. Clearly, more discussion was needed!

So the pragmatic definition of truth, while attempting to avoid the abstractions of absolute idealism, becomes the prey of a solipsistic individualism, because, spurning the assistance of metaphysics, it has no intelligent ground. At any rate, the serious-minded cannot be satisfied with a test of value for truth which shall be merely human and relative. (Page 120)

James then turned to “pluralism as a means of escape from the insistent problems arising out of the contrast between mind and matter, subject and object”. But this doesn’t fly, either, for we still need some sort of unity:

The fact that the world can be understood by us is a principle of unity in itself, which must be removed before pluralism can be admitted. Unity does not depend, as the pragmatists seem to think, upon chemical spatial and social interaction between given individuals. (Page 124)

James gave as one reason for “denying a unitary world was to save some place in it for novelty and innovation”. Certainly “to gain a place in the world for freedom” is “laudable”:

But here pluralism offers only a false hope. The common example of absolute innovation in our world is that which is introduced by the free human spirit. The moment a free intelligence is posited as the world ground we have our freedom and not in any otherwise. (Page 125)

Nor does pluralism let us escape from the problem of evil or from moral responsibility. And although Plato’s Doctrine of Ideas may still have its problems, Eucken points out what it recognizes:

[T]here is a realm of truth beyond the likes and dislikes of men; that truths are valid, not because of our consent, but independently of it, and in a sphere raised above all human opinion and power. Such a conviction is the foundation of the independence of science, and of the secure upbuilding of civilization; only a self-dependent truth can provide laws and norms which elevate human existence because they unite it. (Eucken, Problem of Human Life, pages 18-21)

The other chapter in the pragmatism section names Bowne’s take on it as being “a step in the development of philosophy”. He is “antagonistic to the closed system of the absolutist”. He “refused to accept a pantheistic God appearing in all his creations and depending upon them for his own being, hence thinking evil with their evil thoughts and bound to a hideous and unethical world which really is himself”.

Bowne “retains his pragmatism, and shows the emptiness of the absolute position without surrendering truth that shall be valid for all. He does this through his definition of being.” He has defined real as “that which can act or be acted upon”. Being is “essentially causal and active”. He discriminates

between phenomenal or inductive as contrasted with metaphysical efficiency, which is the immanent causality of a Fundamental Unitary Being. Phenomenal causality refers to the laws of change in phenomena which give us the anticipated order of events of science. These may be studied, classified, and verified without reference to their metaphysical ground. Metaphysical efficiency has reference to that Supreme Intelligent Purpose by which all things subsist, and which must be affirmed if there is to be any true knowledge or if the sundered sides of consciousness are to be united.(page 133)

Here is how Bowne escape[s] from pluralism and absolutism to world-unity:

Convinced that there can be no unity without a closed system, with no real freedom and no novelty, the pluralists have rushed to the maintenance of a disjunctive universe. But a disjunctive universe is as much of an impossibility to thought in a sane and intelligible world as a universe absolutely predetermined by a Supreme Idea or by the mechanical necessities of materialism. The refuge taken in a pluralistic universe is simply the attempt to flee from one irrationality to a greater. We find pluralism unable to reconcile change and identity on its impersonal plane. The demon of determinism may be momentarily exorcised, but with the resulting return of seven other demons worse than itself. (Pages 133-134)

Instead, Bowne points out , “the only real unity of which we are directly aware is the unity of the free and conscious self”. He adds, “It is no doubt fine, and in some sense it is correct, to say that God is in all things; but when it comes to saying that God is all things, and that all forms of thought and feeling and conduct are his, then reason simply commits suicide.”

Bowne also holds that time and space are ideal in nature. “Pragmatism of the James type is very prone to fly at anything which bears the suggestion of idealism.” He adds: “It is not surprising that the pragmatists are unwilling to surrender space and time to idealism, for on these two hang all the unity that is left them, and by their own confession some unity is necessary even to a pluralistic universe. . . . Without a unitary personality the fleeting facts and changes of our human life could not be related.”

The cherry on the sundae is the pragmatic test for religious values. Bowne applied it very differently from James:

Affirming a moral governor of the world, he yet held that the test of theological opinion, of so-called religious experience, must ever lie in actual life. “How does it work in life?” was a question proper to any religious belief whatever. By the practical answer must the theory stand or fall.
On the other hand, those beliefs that have been found contributing toward a higher civilization, a nobler moral order, a clearer conception of duty and the greatest good to the race, carry with them their own credentials, which cannot be speculatively overthrown. (Page 141)

To be continued.


June 28, 2016

Bowne and Some Present-Day Thinkers

In this final section of Flewelling’s book on personalism, he includes chapters on Henri Bergson, Rudolf Eucken, and a concluding chapter: “Bowne’s Personalism and the Problems of Life”. We will save the final chapter for a post-Fourth of July spectacular, and look at Bergson and Eucken for now.

Before beginning, let’s note that “present-day” for this book meant 1915, and there has been a lot of water over the dam since then. Bowne’s dates were 1846-1910, Bergson’s were 1859-1941, and Flewelling lived from 1871-1960. Ernest Holmes lived from 1887-1960. To look at the 1915 chapter is to see a very different view of Bergson from what emerged later. Well, as Heraclitus taught us, you can’t step into the same river twice.

In “Bergson, The Abstractions of an Impersonal Philosophy”, we learn: “Bergson approaches the problems of philosophy from the standpoint of empiricism. He denies the conclusions of idealism and at the same time opposes the claims of materialism.” So he is going to have at least two groups of people disagreeing with him, one of them including the Personalists, who were idealists. “He states the problem of philosophy to be the bringing together of the sundered sides of consciousness, matter and mind.” He says, “Being, in ourselves, is becoming, progress and growth.” But Flewelling then points out all the difficulties encountered in following Bergson’s path. He concludes the chapter:

[T]hat his ideas lack the metaphysical grounding that would make them most effective must be admitted. The truth of this statement will never be more evident than upon comparison of the abstractions of Bergson’s impersonalism with the directness of Bowne’s personalism. (Page 168)

Not being a philosopher, I can’t quite get three volumes of Bergson’s thought down to a couple of sound bites. But I was aware—going in to this—of a great book, Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne (1993), edited by David Ray Griffin. My purpose in getting into the work of the Personalists was to throw a bit of light on the roots of process thought. The Bergson chapter is by Pete A. Y. Gunter, who describes the immense popularity of Bergson, whose philosophy “captured the spirit of his time”. His ideas were everywhere being discussed and debated, and over time they evolved away from an early dualism:

Bergson’s first work, Time and Free Will (1889), is an exploration of “inner duration,” a concept that, along with William James’ “stream of consciousness,” forms an important basis for subsequent process philosophies. By showing that mathematical and geometrical thought fail to do justice to the experience of inner duration or the stream of consciousness, both thinkers sought to demonstrate the freedom and the reality of the individual. (Page 135)

But Bergson’s approach to this led him into difficulties, so debates continued. James and Bergson were great friends, but they still had philosophical disagreements. The Philosopher’s squiggles lead me to the conclusion that Bergson may not have had the last word, but he led other philosophers into much of the thinking that eventually led to process philosophy. The introductory section of the Founders book is festooned with the Philosopher’s squiggles up and down the margins, but I can’t reproduce 32 pages of Introduction! Anyway, Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1907) meant that some biologists “retained their faith in Darwin, but sought to reinterpret evolution in less mechanistic ways”. Gunter notes, “[T]he critical side of Bergson is also accompanied by a constructive side, as we have already seen with regard to physics” (well, you would have already seen it had you read this chapter for yourself!). A Philosopher’s squiggle highlights: “Bergson’s intuition . . . for all its connections with instinct is not instinct. It is a kind of reflection that distances us from mere feeling or sensation while integrating us more fully within the web of life.” And the paragraph ends, “Bergson’s biological theory of knowledge could form a basis for the realization that not only nothing human, but also nothing living, is alien to us.”

Back to Flewelling: even in 1915, the Personalists saw the value of Bergson’s ideas but also saw the difficulties that they led to. Eucken, you may recall, wrote the Introduction to Flewelling’s book, which we have been perusing. In “Eucken—The Return to Spiritual Verity”, Flewelling shows us “the affinity and relationship of his thought with that of Bowne”, with whom Eucken shared “the warmest personal regard and mutual appreciation”. Chapter divisions tell the story:

Reality Must Include More Than Things, and More Than Ideas

“Spiritual truth, from being a wandering child of intellect or emotion, becomes a fundamental fact, the fundamental reality, for in its outworking it is the highest expression of man’s very being.”

Truth Must Have a Common Validity

“No one has shown more clearly than Eucken the absurdity and worthlessness of a truth whose only norm is its utility for the individual on a given occasion.”

Eucken’s Personal Idealism, the Realization of the Life of the Spirit

“It has been Bowne’s distinctive task to develop the idea of personality. Eucken’s peculiar work has been to emphasize the place and reality of the life of the spirit.”

The Absence of the Christological Interest

(This was the main difference between Eucken and Bowne.)

“[Christological interest]...a very important part of Bowne’s system [he was a Methodist minister].”

“Eucken himself tells us of the impossibility of the atheistic standpoint and assumes theism as the necessary moral grounding of the ideal which lifts it above the individual judgments and caprices of men to universal validity.”

To be continued. Next week, we shall examine the concluding chapter of Flewelling’s book and segue into broader views of the topic of personalism.


July 5, 2016

Bowne’s Personalism and the Problems of Life

I hope that you are basking in the glow of a glorious Fourth, even if you only watched it on tv.

Flewelling is finishing up with a bang. Eucken, you may recall, put him up to writing this book, which really honors Bowne as the father of personalism, even though Bowne and Eucken never met face to face. Nobel prize-winning (1908) German philosopher Rudolf Eucken (1846-1926) was still very much alive and kicking in 1915, when he wrote the introduction to Flewelling’s book on personalism. We looked at the Introduction on April 19, to which you may wish to go back. Last week, we gave a brief look at the chapter on Eucken in Flewelling’s last section. The “present-day thinkers” in this last section were Bergson, Eucken, and now, a summary chapter on Bowne, who got the whole thing started.

Bowne, let us remember, was a Methodist minister, whose training was classical. New Thought is proud to have a handful of such classically trained ministers, who enrich New Thought by making it pull up its philosophical/theological socks from time to time while being open to the fresh approach they gain from New Thought.

To deal with this summary chapter, let us go back to Eucken’s introduction briefly:

Bowne is a sharp critic, not unkind, not fault-finding, but severely punishing those writers who assume to be contented with the natural, the visible, or with the impersonal spirit. He demands personal spiritual life, and consequently a living personal God, out of whom proceeds all power, and who is the active principle from whom all phenomena set forth. (page 24)
Naturalists deny the metaphysical and take the visible as the basis of their so-called metaphysics. This is illogical, as it turns effect into cause. So Bowne criticizes evolutionists for commonly confusing the ideas of cause and effect. . . ; he has developed a metaphysics of theism. He does not simply posit certain truths of theism, but treats all these from a metaphysical standpoint, and this is of great value to-day in the field of philosophy. (pages 24-25)

Bowne, says Eucken, gives us

three leading points which mark the chief directions of his thought: First, religion consists in life, and not in teaching or doctrine; second, the kernel of religion is ethical, and religion is the lodestar of ethics, with which it is inseparably connected; third, religion is common to all humanity. . . . [R]eligion is the spiritual experience of humanity and is manifested in the individual. (page 25)
James leads us back to the practical. So does Bowne, but with a different meaning, for with him, behind the practical stands the metaphysical. . . . Bowne’s contention is that the spiritual basis of life is not new, but it becomes new in its forms of development. God does not develop, but it is man that changes and develops. (pages 27-28)

Process thinkers, your spines should be tingling! Not that Bowne was altogether there yet, but here is a finger pointing in your direction.

Bowne would have us hold no harsh or crude ideas of God’s relation to the world. . . . would have us believe, with modern Christians, that he created the world out of the fulness of his love. All religion and worship would be a form of love, and would mean the worship of a loving Being, not of a tyrant. (page 29)
Bowne urges that there are many ways of arriving at religion. . . . Religion leads to lives, not to theologies, for it is based upon the fundamental principles of life, and not upon temperament or environment. In these ideas of Bowne we find a reconciliation of opposing views, of earnest seriousness and happy enjoyment, of problems and conflicts, combined with hope and joyous courage. (pages 30-31)

On to Flewelling’s summary chapter:

Bowne saw, as few others, how impossible it is to account for an intelligible and orderly world, for knowledge and for spiritual reality, on the plane of the impersonal. This was his distinctive contribution to philosophy. So clear was his criticism along this line that all metaphysical thinking will be forced to take account of it. (page 183)

The problems of life addressed by Bowne:

Unity Possible Only Through Personalism
Personalism and Freedom
Personalism and the Problem of Evil
Personalism is the most reasonable solution of the problem of unity. . . . Change and identity are irreconcilable except through an abiding Personality surviving above their fluctuations. A unity obtained by assuming an Absolute of whose thought the world is the outworking, ends in a pantheism fatal to all freedom or individuality. If instead of naming a vague Absolute as the ground of all things, we assume a free Personality upholding the world of things, and the world of spirits endowed by him with a freedom akin to his own, then all is well. (pages 183-184)
There is no longer a conflict between science and religion, because the laws of nature are seen as the self-imposed ways of the Divine in bringing forth the order of change. Natural laws are not erected into an independent system in which God is a slave, for they are but the uniformities of his activity. The deductions which we draw from the order of sequence are not to be given a causal efficiency. (page 185)

On to freedom:

Freedom is not provided for in any naturalistic scheme whatever. This is not alone because of innate or a priori ideas which cannot be traced to experience. It is not merely inability to trace the products of reflection to appropriate nervous excitations. The power of self-directing personality to introduce its own will as a new factor into the order of nature is too evident in common experience to be overlooked. This introduction of purpose to modify the natural processes is something of which nature herself is evidently incapable. The mechanical system of causation would not only deprive man of individuality, but would preclude the possibility of moral action. . . . The outcome of absolutism of the extreme type is very close to that of materialism despite their wide difference of spirit and of aim. . . . On the personal plane we can affirm a good and perfect God who has given to man a personality measurably like his own, free to act in accordance with or against the Divine will. . . . Man becomes thus morally responsible, and his freedom to make a confusion of God’s world is a gift to which he is to be held strictly to account. (pages 185-187)

And the infamous Problem of Evil:

The schools of idealism and of materialism find equal difficulty when they face the problem of evil: . . . either a God who is as responsible for evil as he is for good, or a world that is essentially unmoral. In either case it would be impossible to hold to individual moral responsibility. . . . Still there would remain the mysteries of pain and death, and for these it would at first seem almost impossible to clear the Infinite Personality. This point is the rock on which theism is supposed to wreck itself. . . . Why discipline should be necessary is a question bound up with that of the attainment of character. That it is necessary is a commonplace of experience. (pages 187-189)

Alan used to say that evil is only a problem if God is good; otherwise, what would you expect?!

But what of death and other ongoing problems?

It is not only impossible to face the problems of evil with any satisfaction apart from the personalistic view. The problem can never be solved in the abstract. It must be solved in each particular case as it arises. . . . Personality is surely the richest gift of man, and who can deny that it is likewise the supreme possession of God? (pages 192-193)

Tying James to Bowne despite their numerous philosophic disagreements:

Mr. James has said in his Pluralistic Universe: “A man’s vision is the great fact about him. A philosophy is the expression of man’s intimate character, and all the definitions of the universe are but the deliberately adopted reactions of human characters upon it.” This was particularly true of Bowne. (page 193)

Today’s world (and even the world of 1915) was not receptive to Bowne’s ideas:

Accused by the shallow-minded of heresy, the strong religious tone of all Bowne’s reaching was its predominant characteristic. This was the very point most criticized by his philosophical contemporaries, to whom the recognition of religious verity was a sign of philosophical weakness. . . . For this reason he was at the close of life fitted as perhaps no other man of his time for great constructive religious and intellectual leadership. (pages 194-195)

If you have stayed with me during this rough-water trip through rapids and over waterfalls, you must have spotted much that is sympatico with New Thought and Process Thought. If you are open-minded, then even coming from traditional (dare I say evangelical) Christianity, you will sense a certain kinship. To rebuild the ruins of a once-great civilization, New Thought must be in the vanguard; and that involves pulling in the past to an appropriate degree, and folding in new ideas appropriate with the old.

To be continued, with more of an overview, through the Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Burrows’ Personalism (1999).


July 12, 2016

Personalism: An Overview

This series of columns began on March 29. We started out with a brief glance at John Lavely’s article on the subject in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 6, (1967), Macmillan & Free Press. Lavely, you may recall, was one of Alan’s professors at Boston University. Now we shall look at a summation of the ground that we have covered. Lavely begins with definitions:

Neither in common usage nor in philosophy has there been a univocal concept of “person.” Rather, the word “person” and its almost exact cognates in the modern Western languages, as well as in Sanskrit (perusa), have numerous uses which at best seem only to border on one another. In recent common usage, “person” refers to any human being in a general way, much as the word “thing” refers unspecifically to any object whatsoever. Usually, indeed, “person” contrasts with “thing” exclusively, and when it is not used referentially . . . , it is most commonly used emphatically, to draw attention to the fact that whoever is so designated is, after all, a human being and ought to be treated accordingly. (page 110)

The last of the books that I somewhat arbitrarily retrieved from the Philosopher’s library was Personalism: A Critical Introduction, by Rufus Burrow, Jr. Burrow is professor of church and society at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN. Alan appears to have acquired it at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston in 1999. It didn’t take me long to figure out why: Burrow was, like Alan, a student of Pete Bertocci at B.U. He viewed process philosophy as a type of personalism, including these comments in a chapter titled “The ‘Unpopularity’ of Personalism”:

A third reason for the unpopularity of personalism is that there are other, more popular, theologies and philosophies in major seminaries, colleges, and universities today. In the Introduction we saw that there was a radical decline in the significance of philosophical idealism after the two world wars. During this period existentialism began to emerge and take center stage. We found that the attempt by some thinkers to revive the absolute idealism of Josiah Royce failed, and with that, idealistic philosophy has not recovered to any significant degree.
Process or panpsychistic philosophy is an example of a popular philosophy today. What is interesting here is that historical works on personalism reveal that, despite differences, there are many points of convergence with process philosophy. One might say that the two are at least “soulmates.” In fact, one could say, following Knudson, that what we now know as process philosophy is a type of personalism. Both philosophies essentially contend that being is active, processive, or dynamic. Both are influenced by the philosopher Leibniz, with his strong emphasis on the active or processive nature of reality. According to Leibniz, “in the smallest portion of matter there is world of creatures, living beings, animals, entelechies, and souls.” Leibniz called these monads. Each monad—from the lowest to the highest—has its own internal power.
This leads to the idea so prominent in personalism and process philosophy that to be is to act or be acted upon. However, neither personalism nor process philosophy has much use for the Leibnizian idea that the monads are windowless, for this would mean that they cannot see outside themselves and are therefore not able to act in a meaningful way. . . . Whitehead’s way of responding to Leibniz’s windowless monads was to say that every actual occasion feels and thus prehends every other. Each is related to the entire universe.
Both personalism and process philosophy elevate the worth of nature, although . . . personalism was late in treating this in a more explicit, systematic way. Both elevate freedom to a place of supremacy, thereby contending that, in the most fundamental sense, to be is to be free. . . . [B]efore Whitehead developed his process philosophy, Bowne had already written several major texts in which he systematically and methodically developed the philosophy of personalism. . . . (pages 232-233)

Burrow then quotes Lavely:

What is clear is that the affinities between and the common motifs of personalism and panpsychism are such that both positions have more at stake in reenforcing each other than in repudiating each other. . . Jointly panpsychism and personalism may be the last best hope of metaphysics. (page 233)

Further, “both [personalism and process philosophy] are original in the sense that they took certain basic ideas from past thinkers and orchestrated them in such a way that a new way of thinking about and doing philosophy emerged.”

And he concludes his book:

Although personalism sees persons as the highest intrinsic values in the world, it has from the time of Bowne sought to see them in relation both with each other and with the other areas of creation. This relational aspect of personalism means that all that is created by God warrants respect and corresponding treatment precisely because it was called into existence by a personal and loving God. (page 256)

I hope that in this wild gallop through the frequently misunderstood topic of personalism I have managed to intrigue at least a few of you into reading further. Just as the Philosopher firmly believed that process philosophy made a far more suitable underpinning for New Thought, he also held that personalism made an important and overlooked contribution to process thought. And did you know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a personalist? Burrow wrote an entire book about him. That should interest a large collection of New Thoughters!


July 19, 2016

Spaces In Between

Lately, I feel like a space shot a lot of the time. I am involved in two shows: the famous musical comedy Annie Get Your Gun and a production by adults for children, Cinderella. Last night, we auditioned for a third show, Agatha Christie’s long-running whodunit, The Mousetrap.

You don’t have to be nuts to be involved in community theatre, but it helps. The week leading up to opening night, anything that can go wrong, will. There isn’t time to cook, let alone do dishes. You have to make sure that you have all the parts of your costume with you, and if there are two shows to keep track of simultaneously, it all multiplies exponentially. Then you have lines and music to learn and dance steps to rehearse, not to mention being sure that you are at the right rehearsal in the right place at the right time. And oh, yes, keep the car’s gas tank full. Much of the time, my mind feels like confetti in a wind tunnel.

The weather this month has been a challenge as well: nearly every day there is a threat of thunderstorms from clouds that roll in from the Gulf of Mexico, so I have to carry a rain bonnet at all times and have an umbrella in my tote as well as in my car. This being Florida, we have to expect this to continue possibly through September in heat that sometimes gets into three digits.

This time of year usually, most sensible people go elsewhere, elsewhere being cooler and drier. This traditionally means that the highways are less clogged. But this year, people seem to be putting up with the heat and humidity to stay down here. The state or county or whatever, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to tamper with all the stop lights, so that they turn red as you approach them. And, the sensible people being elsewhere, everyone left down here has forgotten how to drive.

Last—and worst—it seems as if every day brings another tale of horror: an individual or group, seething with hate for people who do not agree with their point of view, have massacred a number of innocent people. They even attack those who are charged with keeping the rest of us safe. Others side with the offenders, fanning the flames of terror.

This is by no means the first time that the world has been in such a less-than ideal state. Poets and psalmists have lamented it before:

Have you come to the Red Sea place in your life
Where in spite of all you can do,
There is no way out, there is no way back
There is no other way but through?

I quoted this bit of a poem by Annie Johnson Flint (1866-1932) in an editorial for New Thought in the summer of 2005 The Red Sea Place. It refers to Exodus 14, when the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt found themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the horses and chariots of the Egyptian army chasing them. There was nothing to do but move forward, and a way appeared for them, a God-sent way that also did in the enemies.

At other times, there is nothing to do but wait, to endure hardships. At such times, we are told, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). During a break in the battle or a lull in the storm, or a quiet time in the night, we are—as New Thought author Emmet Fox advised—to turn the Golden Key: to think about God instead of the problem. This renews us physically and mentally, allowing our brains to process what they have already received and prepare to receive more wisdom, more learnings. Recent research in psychology reveals that it is imperative to take such breaks between one activity and another, to allow the brain’s librarians to file things properly. It isn’t any more efficient to just plow ahead; we get slower and more error prone if we do. A meal, a short nap, or a few exercises all help us to continue to work efficiently and effectively.

So whatever you have to put up with, listen for God’s guidance as to whether to forge ahead and take some sort of action or let go and let God. And in between, rest and renew, using those spaces in between.

Lagniappe: In the midst of all this gloom and doom, I am happy to supply some sunshine in the form of my new book. With the help of Ron Hughes with the publishing and his wife Mary with the cover art, I am proud to present Sunny Apartments: The Thought of Henry Wood (1834-1909). I have edited it from a long series of weekly columns that I have written, and with Ron’s help, made it available in softcover and Kindle editions. You can link to Amazon here and read the two introductory chapters by clicking on the “Look Inside” feature. Henry Wood was a very successful businessman and early New Thought author who—with the help of New Thought teachings—overcame a serious illness that had forced him to retire early. Tell your friends and your local church book store manager.


July 26, 2016—This week’s issue of The Philosopher’s Stone is delayed due to technical difficulties. Please check back again! Thank you.


August 9, 2016

Wee’re Baack!

Great news: My new computer is much faster than my old one, my uninterruptible power source just needed a new battery, and my computer man was able to get all the old files off my old hard drive. I have a nice new keyboard that works better than my old one, and I didn’t have to replace my beloved trackball mouse or my monitor.

That’s about the end of the good news. I have lost a lot of time and spent a lot of energy trying to recover what I used to have in terms of settings and convenience. I was out of touch with the outside world except for my i6 phone, the first cell phone I have ever owned, and which I mainly use as a portable inbox. So life has been topsy turvy, to say the least.

But I have been using my downtime to good avail. Wandering into the Philosopher’s library, I suddenly spotted a book with a pristine dust jacket that I didn’t recall seeing before. Since he haunted bookstores and remainder tables (but wouldn’t have had a pristine dust jacket that way), and received a lot of review copies of new textbooks and such (a distinct possibility), its source was a puzzlement until I checked inside the back cover and found my own notation to indicate that we acquired it from Amazon in September of 2007. Hmmm.... Then, as I flipped through it, I found numerous underlinings and notations to indicate that I had read it fairly thoroughly. Double hmmm.... Further research was necessary. So I sat down and began rereading the thing from cover to cover and am about halfway through.

The book: Beauregard, M. & O’Leary, D. (2007) The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. New York: HarperOne (HarperCollins). Preliminary exploration revealed familiarity with the likes of William James, C. S. Lewis, and Evelyn Underhill, along with such people as Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley. Mario Beauregard is on the faculty of the University of Montreal and has conducted extensive groundbreaking research on the neurobiology of mystical experience. His colleague is “a Toronto-based freelance journalist and blogger who specializes in faith and science issues”. Sounds good!

At the moment, it appears that we shall spend a few weeks examining this book. This union of science and religion is one that we don’t see much of in our philosophically materialistic world.

Meanwhile, I invite you to peruse my new book, Sunny Apartments: The Thought of Henry Wood (1834-1909). You can read the two introductory chapters for free on Amazon. You have your choice of softcover or Kindle editions.

Introducing Our Newest Publication!

Sunny Apartments The Thought of Henry Wood (1834-1909) Henry Wood (1834-1909)

Sunny Apartments
The Thought of Henry Wood (1834-1909)

by Deborah G. Whitehouse, Ed.D.

Henry Wood (1834-1909) can be described as one of the pioneers of the New Thought movement, even though he was neither a minister nor the founder of a church or center. A successful businessman and author, Wood was forced by ill health to retire. He somehow came across the principles later known as New Thought, was healed, and sought to help others learn to heal themselves. He was one of the founders of the Metaphysical Club and at one time served as its president.

Wood, along with Horatio W. Dresser, was one of two New Thought authors specifically singled out for praise by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience. Here is what James had to say about New Thought, known at the time as “mind cure”:

The plain fact remains that the spread of the movement has been due to practical fruits, and the extremely practical turn of character of the American people has never been better shown than by the fact that this, their only decidedly original contribution to the systematic philosophy of life, should be so intimately knit up with concrete therapeutics. (p. 94)

On the same page, James, after describing “a good deal of the mind-cure literature” as “so moonstruck with optimism and so vaguely expressed that an academically trained intellect finds it almost impossible to read it at all”, states in a footnote that he considers Horatio W. Dresser and Henry Wood “far and away the ablest of the group” of mind-cure authors.

The present volume is based on a long series of weekly columns commenting on Wood’s thought over the course of ten books. It includes the Suggestions and Meditations from Wood’s flagship work, Ideal Suggestion Through Mental Photography, and the Suggestive Lessons from The New Thought Simplified.

224 pp.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2016942723
ISBN 978-0-9849276-7-8 paperback
ISBN 978-0-9849276-8-5 ebook

Published by
Phineas Parkhurst Quimby Resource Center
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Also available on Kindle.

Lagniappe: Annie and Cindy were both howling successes. Cindy sold out two performances and had only a few seats left for the other two. Adults and children alike enjoyed the participatory aspects of it and were howling with laughter. And Annie star Jennifer Bierchen has been nominated for a Star award (from the local Theatre Grapevine) as Best Actress in a musical comedy.


August 16, 2016

Toward a Spiritual Neuroscience

We are beginning our romp through The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul with an exploration of senior author Beauregard’s Introduction. I shall give him the floor:

When my doctoral student Vincent Paquette and I first began studying the spiritual experiences of Carmelite nuns at the Université de Montréal, we knew that our motives were quite likely to be misunderstood.
First, we had to convince the nuns that we were not trying to prove that their religious experiences did not actually occur, that they were delusions, or that a brain glitch explained them. Then we had to quiet both the hopes of professional atheists and the fears of clergy about the possibility that we were trying to reduce these experiences to some kind of “God switch” in the brain.
Many neuroscientists want to do just that. But Vincent and I belong to a minority—nonmaterialist neuroscientists. Most scientists today are materialists who believe that the physical world is the only reality. Absolutely everything else—including thought, feeling, mind, and will—can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena, leaving no room for the possibility that religious and spiritual experiences are anything but illusions. (page ix)

There you have it, folks: non-materialists have an uphill battle these days. The Philosopher and I have long waxed eloquent about the philosophical flaws in materialism, the more-than-twice-as-many flaws in dualism, and the value of the cleaned-up form of idealism known as panexperientialism, ably expounded on by process philosopher David Ray Griffin over several books on the subject.

Although neuroscience studies of contemplative nuns cannot demonstrate that God exists, “they can—and did—demonstrate that the mystical state of consciousness really exists”, thereby ruling out “various materialist theses that the contemplative is faking or confabulating the experience”. They also demonstrated that mystical experiences are complex, which does in “a vast variety of simplistic materialist explanations such as ‘God gene’, ‘God spot’, or ‘God switch’ in our brains”.

Materialists assume that the mind is nothing but the physical workings of the brain. The authors of the book we are discussing “intend to show you that your mind does exist, that it is not merely your brain”. Questions about our meaning or purpose are not “merely survival mechanisms”and mind is not merely an illusion:

This book argues that the fact that the human brain evolves does not show that the human mind can be dismissed in this way. Rather, the human brain can enable a human mind, whereas the mole brain cannot (with my apologies to the mole species). The brain, however, is not the mind; it is an organ suitable for connecting a mind to the rest of the universe. By analogy, Olympic swimming events require an Olympic class swimming pool. But the pool does not create the Olympic events; it makes them feasible at a given location. [How cool is it that we are exploring this book during the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro!] (page xi)

Yes, this book questions materialism and present evidence that materialism is not true. One important tenet of materialism is that materialist ideology trumps evidence. Not very scientific, to say the least: If you aren’t a materialist, you are a heretic! My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with facts.

But other challenges to materialism exist. Materialists must believe that their minds are simply an illusion created by the workings of the brain and therefore that free will does not really exist and could have no influence in controlling any disorder. But nonmaterialist approaches have clearly demonstrated mental health benefits. . . .
Jeffrey Schwartz, a nonmaterialist UCLA neuropsychiatrist, treats obsessive-compulsive disorder—a neuropsychiatric disease marked by distressing, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts—by getting patients to reprogram their brains. Their minds change their brains. (page xiii)

“There is no escaping the nonmaterialism of the human mind”, say the authors. “Essentially, there is no God switch.” However, “Nonmaterialist neuroscience is not compelled to reject, deny, explain away, or treat as problems all evidence that defies materialism”, which is a good thing because the body of such evidence is growing. Examples include the psi effect, near death experiences (NDEs), and the placebo effect. The placebo effect (some say it should be referred to as the placebo response) , “for nonmaterialist neuroscience, a normal effect that can be of great therapeutic value when properly used”.

The fact is, materialism is stalled. It neither has any useful hypotheses for the human mind or spiritual experiences nor comes close to developing any. Just beyond lies a great realm that cannot even be entered via materialism, let alone explored. But the good news is that, in the absence of materialism, there are hopeful signs that spirituality can indeed be entered and explored with modern neuroscience. (page xiv)

So materialists just yell a little louder. (It reminds me of the story of the janitor cleaning the pulpit and noticing hand-written instructions in the margins of next Sunday’s sermon: “Pause here”, “Wipe brow here”, and “Argument weak here. Yell like hell!”) “The remarkable thing is that there isn’t a single new idea in anything they have to say. Eighteenth-century philosophes said it all long ago, to as much or little purpose.”

Contrary to expert predictions, spirituality today is growing all over the world. “But how can we investigate spirituality scientifically?” We do have a nonmaterialist inheritance worth rediscovering. And this book promises to carry the standard bravely forward with three key ideas:

[First], the nonmaterialist approach to the human mind is a rich and vital tradition that accounts for the evidence much better than the currently stalled materialist one. Second, nonmaterialist approaches to the mind result in practical benefits and treatments, as well as promising approaches to phenomena that materialist accounts cannot even address. Lastly—and this may be the most important value for many readers—our book shows that when spiritual experiences transform lives, the most reasonable explanation and one that best accounts for all the evidence, is that the people who have such experiences have actually contacted a reality outside themselves, a reality that has brought them closer to the real nature of the universe. (page xvi)

Right up New Thought’s alley!

To be continued.


August 23, 2016

Science: Search for Truth or Support for Materialism?

Materialism has been bedeviling the human race for many centuries, but it really began to gather steam with Darwin and evolution. Chapter one of The Spiritual Brain begins with a world summit on evolution held on “the very spot where Charles Darwin first docked in 1835 to probe the ‘mystery of mysteries’—the origin and nature of species, including (and perhaps especially) the human species”. Materialism is “the belief that all life, including human life, is merely a product of the blind forces of nature. In the materialist’s view, our ‘minds’—soul, spirit, free will—are simply an illusion created by the electrical charges in the neurons of our brains.” One famous materialist describes nature as “a blind watchmaker”, an unworthy description indeed for a God worthy of worship. But I am getting ahead of the story:

The question addressed in this book is not whether materialism is good news or bad news. Rather, the question is, does the evidence from neuroscience support it? As constitutional law professor Phillip Johnson, long a foe of materialism, which he terms “naturalism,” writes: “If the blind watchmaker thesis is true, then naturalism deserves to rule, but I am addressing those who think the thesis is false, or at least are willing to consider the possibility that it may be false.” (page 2)

This book sets out to show that the materialist neuroscientists (and they are legion) are mistaken and why. First, “the materialists’ account of human beings does not bear up well under close examination”. Second, “there is good reason for believing that human beings have a spiritual nature, one that even survives death”. Why should you care? A nonmaterialist account is needed “because the materialist account is inadequate”. We “begin by outlining some of the failures”.

I frequently quote Charles Hartshorne’s indictment of materialism as denying the existence of the things we humans hold most dear. “In other words, neuroscientists have not discovered that there is no you in you; they start their work with that assumption. Anything they find is interpreted on the basis of that view. The science does not require that. Rather, it is an obligation that materialists impose on themselves. Most people don’t believe it; furthermore, “Not enough people have enough faith to be atheists." Sadly, "the best-known portion of American society today in which atheism is widespread is elite scientists". These are the folks who have just "assumed that they are right; they have not demonstrated it”. One of their main approaches has been evolutionary psychology, but evolutionary psychology lacks “testability or falsifiability of any given hypothesis”, two critical scientific ingredients. In other words, says evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, “Evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of megalomania. . . . [E]volution becomes the key—the only key—that can unlock our humanity.” But this book is not out to argue that evolution did not occur: “There is a fossil record, after all. In spite of its many defects, the record shows that evolution occurred. Rather, the issue is whether human evolution is a fully naturalistic process that occurs without meaning, purpose, direction, or design in a fully materialist universe.

Other areas that materialists have explored include other animals, such as apes, which need our protection and are worthy of being studied for their differences from human beings; artificial intelligence: “Deep Blue’s programmers are just as human as Kasparov. So the question is not whether a machine can beat a human but whether a human who plays chess by writing a program fares better than a human who plays chess without writing a program.”

“Materialism is wrong in its assessment of human nature because it is not in accord with the evidence”, but it is also limited as a philosophical assumption.

Materialism is a monistic philosophy. “In a monistic system, it is hard to know if we are wrong. Monists have nothing to compare their system with.” Deferring the assumptions to future science is known as promissory materialism and avoids critical examination of the system itself.

“A monistic system like materialism can be destroyed by any evidence against it. That weakness is built into the system by its very nature; it cannot be attributed to harsh, unreasonable, or prejudiced critics. As a result, monistic systems tend to be hostile to investigations that provide evidence against the system’s assumptions.”

The challenge is “to develop hypotheses that take the observed facts seriously enough to go beyond the limitations of materialism. Most of us assume that we have free will, but “a materialist neuroscience cannot account for a mind or for free will in this way. It assumes that [we] are victims of an illusion of free will, because materialism has no model for how free will might actually work.”

Beliefs of the ancients such as Roman poet Lucretius or even the great Isaac Newton included a material cause for all events, as understood by classical physics. The early twentieth century saw these beliefs overthrown by the findings of quantum physics. Force fields, “the ‘quantum’ level of our universe, do not necessarily obey the ‘laws of nature’ with which we are familiar”. Quantum physics does away with determinism: “The basic level of our universe is a cloud of probabilities, not of laws.” The very act of observing changes things: “because your brain is a quantum system, if you focus on a given idea, you hold its pattern of connecting neurons in place. The idea does not decay, as it would if it were ignored.”

Wow! Think of the implications for healing illness, or solving just about any other sort of problem! And New Thoughters were onto it before the quantum physicists ever came along. But we live in a world where we are all constantly being brainwashed with materialism, the Big Lie repeated over and over. What you give your attention to grows, and it is quite a challenge to give your attention to something other than doom and gloom if that is what surrounds you on every side. This book includes a model for nonmechanical causes in the work of Stapp and Schwartz, a targeted attention strategy used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorders, modeling how free will might work in a quantum system.

In the course of explaining “why current materialist neuroscientific theories of mind and spiritual/mystical experiences are mistaken,”, this book explains why popular theories about spiritual experience that support an atheistic worldview are useless. It explores and dismisses the notion of a “God spot” in the brain and the “God Helmet” that supposedly induces spiritual/mystical experiences. It deals with the question, “What is the mind?” (It is not a delusion created by the brain.) It will show how the mind acts on the brain as a nonmaterial cause. It has an extended discussion of spiritual and mystical experiences: who has them, what triggers them, and how such experiences affect those who have them. It describes the senior author’s research with Carmelite nuns (“the experience of union with God is not solely associated with the temporal lobe”, so there is no God spot. And the God helmet doesn’t work.) Finally, it examines the question, Did God create the brain or does the brain create God?

Disclaimers: “The external reality of God cannot be directly proven or disproven by studying what happens to people’s brains when they have mystical experiences. . . . It shows only that it is reasonable to believe that mystics do contact a power outside themselves.” Further, “no claim is made here that every activity pursued in the name of religion is good or equal. . . . A positive case for specific religious beliefs must be made on its own merits and is not the purpose of this book.” Fair enough; this book goes a long way toward doing the necessary ground clearing that must precede such case-building.

The authors state that religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences “cannot be separated in a completely systematic way”. Experiences may fall clearly into one of these categories or may overlap two or three. The authors refer to the term RSMEs to mean “religious, spiritual, and/or mystical experiences” and picture them as three circles whose centers all overlap. As Einstein observed, we should try to make things as simple as possible, but no simpler!

To be continued.


August 30, 2016

God Programs, Modules, and Helmets?

We have been exploring The Spiritual Brain, a nonmaterialistic neuroscience approach that first has to clear away a bunch of materialistic nonsense. Rolling up our spiritual sleeves, we should be able to kill three chapters with one blow.

“Is There a God Program?” Materialists sometimes go to ludicrous extremes to “educate” the rest of us that “the human is ‘just another primate’”:

In the summer of 2005, the London Zoo actually trumped the beach. The zoo staged a hot-weather story that took the international media by storm. For four days . . . in the wooded habitat on Bear Mountain, three male and five female Homo sapiens were displayed. A label was affixed to the display: “Warning: Humans in Their Natural Environment.” . . . . (page 41)

The sapiens had been acquired by having them answer advertisements and provide “a persuasive fifty-word pitch”. “One patron professed disappointment that the sapiens turned out to be wearing swimsuits beneath the cut-out, pinned-on paper fig leaves.” Each night, they returned “not to a pile of bracken somewhere, but to their own flats”. One participant commented that the stunt was intended as a reminder that “we’re not that special”. But, comment our authors, “the publicity stunt was only possible because precisely the opposite happens to be true”. The authors continue:

Yes, we are physically members of the animal kingdom and participate in all its risks and opportunities. But the participant’s comment (“we’re not that special”) shows how entrenched philosophical materialism has become in our society. . . .
This same materialist mind-set has dominated recent attempts to understand spirituality. Many researchers look for spirituality in a part of the brain or a gene, or perhaps in a hypothetical history or meme (a gene equivalent). In other words, they assume that humans are animals who have some kind of organ, gene, or programmed instinct for spirituality. (page 42)

Matthew Alper

set out to look for a science that explains God . . . . using concepts gleaned from evolutionary psychology. That is the branch of psychology which maintains that human brains, including any component that involves religion or spirituality, comprise adaptations or psychological mechanisms that have evolved by natural selection to benefit the survival and reproduction of the human organism. . . . [He] represents. . . the hope that neuroscience will provide support for an atheistic and materialist worldview. However, two problems dog Alper’s thesis: (1) it begs the questions it attempts to answer; and (2) there is no real science behind it. (pages 43-44)

Apart from that, it’s great! I hope that some of you will feel challenged enough to read Alper’s entire set of arguments.

Another scientist Dean Hamer, chief of gene structure at the U. S. National Cancer Institute, “thinks that he has indeed found God in our genes” . As a child, he remembers the issue of Time magazine with the cover reading, “Is God dead?” “Looking back, Hamer sees that God is not dead—but is he simply a quirky gene?” Using a standardized personality test, he identified a variation in a gene, VMAT2 for all you neuroscientists, that he claims is the “God gene”. But he found no “correlation between self-transcendence and anxiety, which contradicts Alper’s central thesis that religious beliefs arise from anxiety. But despite media hoopla, “repeated failure to replicate such findings means nothing in the face of a myth so powerful that it absolves us of the burden of responsibility for our lives”, and other scientists have been critical. “In the end, Hamer’s thesis dies the death of minimal evidence aggravated by a thousand qualifications”. Our authors add:

It is a mistake to look for a simple genetic basis for RSMEs [religious, scientific, or mystical experiences]. . . [G]enes help provide the equipment for a sense of self-transcendence and may influence its direction, but they do not create the self-transcendence. Therefore, it makes no scientific sense to speak of a ‘God gene.’ To do so represents an extreme form of reductionist thinking. (page 54)

What’s next? “In the absence of a clear message from prehistory or genetics, evolutionary psychologists turn to theories based in functional neuroscience. Could there be, for example, a God module, that is, a visible feature or circuit of the brain that provokes the idea of God . . . . specifically because it does not work properly?

“Does the God Module Even Exist?” No! This chapter sums up the notion that epilepsy might be ‘the real explanation for key spiritual experiences”. The discussion revolves around “a temporal-lobe personality that predisposes a person to temporal-lobe epilepsy (TLE)—and thus to religious experiences?” This idea was popular in the nineteenth century, but subsequent research hasn’t produced much, and today’s experts question whether the syndrome actually exists. If you enjoy brain diagrams, be sure and read this chapter. Researchers have trouble finding enough suitable subjects to do a proper study. Furthermore, “the original reason for the pathology model was necessity, not excellence!” We have far better technology at our disposal and “can image the brains of neurologically and psychologically normal experiencers of RSMEs”, which is what the senior author and his student did in their study of the nuns in Montreal.

It gets even sillier. “The Strange Case of the God Helmet” describes the device that fascinated so many atheists who wanted to have a religious experience. Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger created this wondrous invention, which stimulated the temporal lobes with electromagnetic waves. Alas! Famous atheist Richard Dawkins “sensed nothing unusual and described himself as ‘very disappointed’”. But Persinger supposedly had good results with numerous other subjects, many from the media. Still, ask our authors, does the God helmet hold up as science?

The culture of popular science is one of unidirectional skepticism—that is, the skepticism runs only in one direction. It is skeptical of any idea that spirituality corresponds to something outside ourselves, but surprisingly gullible about any reductionist explanation for it. Not surprisingly, therefore, before any attempt at replication of Persinger’s findings, the God helmet took on a life of its own. Pilgrim science journalists toiled up to Sudbury from distant lands to try it on. To some individuals, the story of the helmet seemed not only inevitable and true, but also ready for incorporation into popular culture and commercialization. (page 91)

But skepticism prevailed. Undaunted, Persinger asked, “Can we use it to decrease the anxiety in an increasingly secular world?”

Skeptic Susan Blackmore also tried on the helmet, describing her experience as “extraordinary”. Our authors comment, “[I]t is fair to ask what kind of “skeptic” would fail to recognize that the well-established psychology of suggestion easily explains the God-helmet effect, with no need to invoke electromagnetism?” They continue:

[S]cience journalism originated in a culture in which skepticism was aimed only in one direction. Sociologist Richard Flory notes that, beginning in the late nineteenth century, journalists began to see themselves as the natural successors to traditional religious or spiritual leaders. . . . Assuming that materialism is here to stay, many journalists assumed that their role was to promote materialism at the expense of traditional, spiritually oriented ideas of human nature. Journalism was thereafter to be modeled on science, with “objectivity” as a new standard.. . . . [But] objectivity, in the scientist’s sense, is not a reasonable goal for the journalist. . . . There is no place to stand, while covering a story, that eliminates subjectivity. So, in the new order, what would be the fate of objectivity?
Objectivity came to mean, among other things, hostility to a nonmaterialist approach to RSMEs. Thus, the science journalist’s tradition was skeptical of everything except materialism. Of that, no skepticism is permitted. (page 93)

The authors recommend that, since they have such limited knowledge about RSMEs, journalists become acquainted with them through such works as British Anglican Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism.

Finally, a Swedish neuroscience group did try to replicate the God helmet, borrowing equipment from Persinger. They “could not reproduce his key results”, despite using double-blind protocol. They faulted Persinger for not using double-blind protocol, or at least leaving no record of it, “which left his results open to the possibility that psychological suggestion was the best explanation.”

Summing up:

[M]aterialist neuroscience does a very poor job of accounting for RSMEs. As we have seen, the search for God spots, modules, circuits, and helmets has been a complete waste of time. The hope that neuroscience would quickly identify some simple materialist explanation for the spiritual nature of the human has failed and will continue to fail. (page 99)
But there is another way. We need not be materialists. Neuroscience needs a way to understand RSMEs, but it must begin by taking them seriously rather than trying to shuffle them away. What about the possibility, for example, that the human brain evolved so as to enable RSMEs because they provide some insight into the real nature of the universe?
A dogmatic faith in materialism requires us to reject such a proposition out of hand. But materialism is not providing useful answers, so we ought to look at the evidence again.

Which takes us into the next couple of chapters.

To be continued.


September 6, 2016

“Toward a Nonmaterialist Science of Mind”

First, we have to answer the question, “Are Mind and Brain Identical?” The 1990s were proclaimed “The Decade of the Brain”, reminding us that the cultural deck is still stacked in favor of materialism. Why not “The Decade of the Mind”?

The timing for brain research was good, since we have new techniques:

[S]tudies of how brain-damaged rats get food pellets can’t help us understand human consciousness. Even studies of human beings who have suffered brain damage do not provide a clear picture of what a correctly functioning system—or a system that has successfully repaired itself or compensated for a problem—looks like. But all that was changing fast. Neuroscience was hot. . . . Much was learned, much revised, and some key doctrines quietly forgotten. More than halfway through another decade, we can look back at surprising discoveries that help focus the key questions we are concerned with. (page 102)

One of the “key doctrines quietly forgotten” was that the neurons of the adult brain do not change. We now know that the brain can reorganize (neuroplasticity). “Overall, the few traditional simplicities in neuroscience are vanishing. The brain turns out to be more like an ocean than a clockwork.” And yet “the new discoveries have not explained away basic concepts such as consciousness, the mind, the self, and free will. . . . Qualia . . . are how things appear to us individually—the experiential aspects of our mental lives that can be assessed through introspection.” However, “Materialist neuroscience has a hard time with qualia because they are not easily reducible to a simple, nonconscious explanation”, so materialists sweep them under the rug. Our authors add, “No satisfactory account of the mind is currently widely accepted”.

Materialist approaches “deny that the self or consciousness has any influence on events in the brain; it is merely an epiphenomenon” (this one has been around since Charles Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley compared consciousness to the working of a steam whistle on a locomotive). Or they “deny that consciousness or the self even exists”:

The materialist denies human consciousness with a greater level of certainty than the American fundamentalist denies that evolution occurs because the materialist honestly believes that current science—which he understands as applied materialism—actually supports him. (page 115)

Or they just talk around the problem.

And what about free will? “The dilemma about whether free will exists is the most important of the dilemmas concerned with consciousness.” I wish I could lay my hands on a lovely old cartoon of a ferocious-looking Dilemma with horns for one to get oneself caught on. In this case: “If there is no free will, what about ethics? Can we expect people to behave other than they must? Materialists sometimes teleport the ethical dilemma into a vague realm of nonscientific concepts that are immune to disproof.”

It gets worse:

[I]f the will is an illusion, the very idea of evil is evacuated. In the absence of good and evil, what fills the vacuum? Desires and dislikes. They drive the neural circuits unsupervised.
As C. S. Lewis warned, “When all that says, ‘It is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” In other words, government by materialists must mean government by entities that—on their own testimony—doubt moral responsibility. (page 118)

Here are “at least six fundamental weaknesses that promissory materialism is powerless to address:

  1. Current materialist accounts aim to preserve materialism rather than account for the evidence.
  2. Materialism leads to major disconnects in thinking.
  3. Materialism leads to hypotheses that can never be tested.
  4. Promissory materialism leads to the promotion of impractical projects in the indefinite future to avoid grappling with current issues.
  5. Taken seriously, materialism undermines our capacity to eventually understand the human mind and the human brain.
  6. Materialism is out of step with modern physics.

So we can now move on toward a nonmaterialist science of mind, which “can at least account for known features of human experience”. There isn’t a neat, numbered list, but I will do my best.

“If a nonmaterialist view is correct, then it should be useful in a practical field like medicine. . . . Obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias . . . may be more effectively alleviated if the mind recognizes and reorganizes destructive brain patterns.” Neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz did extensive work in the 80s with OCD patients. He “gives the patient’s mind a strategy for controlling and remapping the brain”. There is other work with phobias, etc.

“The neuroscience of the placebo effect” is very powerful on depression, and even on Parkinson’s. Sham surgery is often effective. “Neuroimaging studies have now demonstrated that the placebo effect is real. It is not simply an artifact of medical record keeping or folklore. But when we try to understand how it works, we must look not only at the brain but also at the mind.” The nocebo effect—reversing the placebo effect—is also well established. But “hope cannot be trademarked”, and new drugs have to demonstrate that they can beat the placebo threshold or they are worthless. Unfortunately, excessive profit motives play a huge role in determining where research dollars go.

“Materialist science does not account convincingly for NDEs”, which are “not even very rare”. Some religious groups join materialists in being uncomfortable with NDEs. Most NDE s are positive, and show that “there is judgment, to be sure, but the reports appear to be in agreement that all judgment comes from within the individual, not from the Being of Light [common to NDEs]. It seems . . . that all God is capable of giving us is unconditional love.“ Extensive research on the psi effect has not been discredited even with determined efforts by the skeptics. Psi is “a low-level effect demonstrated in many laboratory studies—one that materialism does not account for”.

Our authors add:

Regarding psi, we can assume one of two things: (1) every single instance of psi is a direct interference in nature, presumably by a divine power from outside the universe; or (2) the universe permits more entanglement than the materialist paradigm does. (page 177)

Wrapping up the chapter:

As we have seen, a scientifically coherent case can be made for a nonmaterial view of mind and consciousness. But nonmaterialism is not antimaterialism. That is, nonmaterialist science can accommodate all phenomena that can be shown to be simply material in character. But it does not require that all phenomena be so shown—a crucial difference from materialist science. (page 179)


On to mysticism next week.


September 13, 2016

Mystical Experiences

This chapter, “Who Has Mystical Experiences and What Triggers Them?” begins with a quotation from philosopher and pioneer American psychologist William James, in which he clearly takes mysticism quite seriously. Our authors add:

Mysticism is among the most misused words in popular language. Over a century ago, American psychologist William James remarked that it had become an abusive epithet applied to “any opinion which we regard as vague and vast and sentimental, and without a base in either facts or logic”. Worse, said British mysticism researcher Evelyn Underhill, mysticism had been claimed as “an excuse for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics. On the other hand, it has been freely employed as term of contempt by those who have criticized these things.” (page 181)

Apart from that, everybody loves it. ;-)

Our authors of The Spiritual Brain then proceed to consult scholars who are not themselves mystics in their serious study of mysticism. Physicist Richard Conn Henry states, “One benefit of switching humanity to a correct perception of the world is the resulting joy of discovering the mental nature of the Universe. We have no idea what this mental nature implies, but—the great thing is—it is true.” I love the paraphrase from G. K. Chesterton, to the effect that a thing so widely repudiated in such contradictory terms must have some merit. Mysticism comes from a Greek word meaning “conceal”:

Mist conceals because it limits vision. In that sense, there is nothing misty about mysticism. Serious mystics seek access to levels of consciousness that are “concealed” from everyday life. Or, perhaps, not so much concealed as ignored. Levels of consciousness that do not help us get on in our careers or relationships tend to fall into disuse. If access to these levels could transform us, we would never know. (page 182)

W. T. Stace (1886-1967) explains that mystical experiences “involve the apprehension of an ultimate nonsensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate. In other words, it entirely transcends our sensory-intellectual consciousness.” Further, mystical experience is not to be confused with telepathy or telekinesis “and certainly not with a variety of claims about the ‘occult’.”

Mystical experiences fall into “one of three general types: monistic mysticism (the universe revolves around a center from which everything issues), pantheistic mysticism (the entire external world is the ultimate power and the experiencer is part of that power), and theistic mysticism (sensing the presence of the highest power in the universe [panentheism] or a power from beyond the universe [classical theism]. (pages 182-3)

In any event, those who experience any of these are probably not inclined to get into food fights with the others. “Mystics are motivated by love as well as by intellectual interest. But love is hardly a conflict of interest; it is a motive that mystics share with most pioneers. Few risk their very selves unless they love what they undertake—and are willing to accept whatever they find.”

Among the biggest names in the formal study of mysticism are William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience), Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism), and Stace, a civil servant in India who later taught philosophy at Princeton, author of Mysticism and Philosophy and The Teachings of the Mystics. Our authors lament:

Despite the contributions of these and other scholars, the study of mysticism was largely neglected during the twentieth century, the heyday of Freudianism., behaviorism, and evolutionary psychology. The question was no longer, “What do mystics experience?” but “What’s wrong with them, anyway? Can it be fixed? Or maybe it is okay because it is simply a means of spreading their genes!” (page 187)

In short, materialism on the hoof!

The authors continue with hallmarks for identifying a mystical experience, ways of describing RSMEs, and descriptions of mystical experiences, which are rare even for mystics. One Carmelite nun explains, “You can’t search for it. The harder you search, the longer you will wait.” The form of RSME known as a conversion or born-again experience has, says Stace, a “family resemblance” to mystical consciousness, but aren’t strictly the same thing. The New Testament term “born again” (John 3:3) was not widely used until the 1960s and is used among Protestants; Catholics are more likely to speak of charismatic renewals.

Our authors next list some misconceptions about mysticism:

Mysticism is not . . . about hearing voices or seeing visions.

Mystics are not ... impractical idealists.

Mystics commonly live ascetic lives to avoid distractions, not to punish themselves.

Science cannot explain away mystical consciousness. We have seen much in this book about the sad results of exploring things by beginning with a materialist bias.

Mid-twentieth century zoologist Alister Hardy, “no fan of reductionism”, insisted that “animals must be studied as living wholes in their natural environment. They cannot be usefully reduced to physics and chemistry. He agreed with pioneer neuroscientists Charles Sherrington and John Eccles that the mind is distinct from the brain.” Even so, he found the research complicated, and had to group accounts into twelve general classifications for analysis, triggers for RSMEs.

The rest of this long chapter touches on various points well worth exploring but not lending themselves readily to a condensation such as I am attempting. They include:

“Mystics’ accounts of their experiences point in similar directions, but specific expression depend on language and culture.” Perennialists (the term perennialism was coined by mathematician Gottfried Leibniz and popularized by writer Aldous Huxley) “argue for an underlying reality that mystics actually perceive . . . . Huxley thought that one reality underlies both matter and mind. . . .” Constructivism, on the other hand, argues that “culture and assumptions shape mystical experience to such a degree that Buddhist and Christian mystics do not actually encounter the same reality”. My Philosopher considered perennialism a form of pantheism and accordingly didn’t think much of it. But God undoubtedly loves perennialists, too.

As we might expect, there is much about evolutionary psychology’s views on the subject. There are also “selfish genes”, “Memes for memes and assorted other exotics”, etc. In short, in the words of cognitive scientist David Buller, “the evolutionary study of human psychology is still in need of a guiding paradigm”. A guiding God, maybe?

The chapter concludes with Rudolph Otto (1869-1937), who “thought a good deal about evolution and spirituality during World War I. His principle [sic] work, The Idea of the Holy, offers a useful approach to the study of RSMEs. He coined the term “numinous” to signify the type of experience . . . that underlies the development of religious and spiritual traditions.”

By a numinous experience, Otto meant the sense of a presence much greater than oneself, something Wholly Other, which creates awe. . . .
Otto was not arguing that “all religions are equally valid” or that “all religions teach the same thing.” His point is, rather, that all religions originate in a numinous experience. What adherents think, say, or do afterward is a different matter. Otto’s approach to RSMEs was eclipsed by the drift toward materialism in the study of RSMEs in the latter half of the twentieth century, but it experienced a revival in the 1990s with the rise of an evidence-based approach to RSMEs.
But let us turn now from the study of the nature of RSMEs to the study of their effects. If spirituality is natural to us as conscious beings, looking beyond ourselves is—other things being equal—the best way for us to live. In that case, we might reasonably expect it to coincide with good mental and physical health. In Chapter Eight, we look at the evidence from research into spirituality and health. (page 227)

I remind you that the Philosopher’s favorite definition of spirituality was “the raw material from which we form our religions”.

To be continued.


September 20, 2016

Changing Lives Mystically

The intrepid band of explorers who have been following this weekly column with me have been perusing a “quick and dirty” examination of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary (2007). It is not a walk in the park: it goes over scientific research with a fine-tooth comb, examining what holds water and what doesn’t. This week’s chapter, “Do Religious, Spiritual, or Mystical Experiences Change Lives?”, reveals that RSMEs do indeed change lives, overwhelmingly for the better.

One of the main objectives of Alan’s (my late household Philosopher’s) work—in which I enthusiastically joined him—was to point the way to the union (or reunion) of science and religion. It is one world, and we aren’t going to get far in understanding it unless we can engineer the solid philosophical underpinnings of all of it as one rather than tap-dancing around one half of it or the other. Religion and science meet on the lap of philosophy, as Alan and I used to demonstrate at the beginning of our seminars. The present book clears off a lot of defective research to pave the way for a substantial nonmaterialist neuroscientific approach to the subject.

This chapter addresses the evidence into spirituality and health. It begins with a quotation from theologian Alister McGrath:

So just what is the experimental evidence that God is bad for you? [Richard] Dawkins presumes that it is publically accepted within the scientific community that religion debilitates people, reducing their potential for survival and health. Yet recent empirical research points to a generally positive interaction of religion and health. That there are pathological types of religious belief and behavior is well known; yet this in no way invalidates the generally positive estimation of religion’s impact on mental health to emerge from evidence-based studies. (page 230)

Religion is neither “a pastime for dimwits” nor “a holding cell for fanatics”, and responses to recent research reveal that the worm has begun to turn, as evidence mounts that atheist humanism has failed. Our authors state:

Indeed, the problem with the materialist project all along is that, although materialism demands to be seen as the only truth, many undeniable facts of human experience make sense only if we assume that materialism is not true. One of them, which has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves, is the fact that people who develop their spirituality generally enjoy better physical and mental health. (page 231)

The outstanding pioneer in this research is Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Herbert Benson, “one of a handful of medical investigators who established the scientific field recognized today as mind/body medicine”. His work zeroes in on the placebo effect, which he prefers to call “remembered wellness”, or “the propensity of the body to turn a mental belief into a physical instruction”. Back in the Seventies, his review of the literature available showed that the placebo effect was “closer to 70 to 90 percent of the total treatment effect”. How often does anyone mention that to you nowadays? Gee, that might interfere with efforts to sell profitable drugs! Yet the evidence continues to pile up. Many treatments only work well as long as the patient and the physician believe in them. One study published in Lancet (1990) showed that “men who did not take their placebos regularly were more likely to die than men who did”. Any of Benson’s popular books are worth reading. “Benson does not dismiss pharmacy or surgery, nor does he embrace nonscientific medicine, whose successes he ascribes largely to the ‘remembered wellness’ (placebo) effect”. Unintentional reversal of the placebo effect can lead to “the deadly nocebo effect”; Benson would of course like to see that corrected to an efficient use of the placebo.

Evidence continues to mount showing that spirituality, especially when coupled with appropriate use of placebos, favors healing. There has been a strong bias in the medical literature against such results, with “startling absence of empirical evidence to support these views”: “Just as Benson was puzzled by the medical literature’s avoidance of the sheer size of the placebo effect, [Edward B. ] Larson, a devout Christian, was puzzled by its avoidance of and hostility to RSMEs”. Larson is credited with the fact that, “thanks in part to his work with the Templeton Foundation, nearly two-thirds of medical schools offer course work relevant to RSMEs today.” Sir John Templeton, a financial genius who amassed a fortune by investing in the stock market, was also an enthusiastic New Thoughter in the form of Unity School of Christianity, which led to his establishing an organization devoted to encouraging research and development in the union of science and spirituality. It’s always interesting to see financial prosperity linked to New Thought!

Although some patients’ beliefs are “nocebos that adversely affect health, such beliefs ironically support the connection between beliefs and high-level wellness. The new question becomes, “Under what circumstances does spirituality make a difference?” Answers:

Evidence that patients often want their doctors to know about their spiritual beliefs and take them into account,
Evidence that doctors themselves are more likely to have spiritual beliefs than academic or research scientists.
Further evidence that some specific religious attitudes/practices reduce post-operative stress, but that others increase it. (page 238)

A study of the effects of intercessory prayer for the healing of others (STEP), “mainly funded by the Templeton foundation and headed by Herbert Benson”, tried to “tease out prayer’s actual effect”, and was criticized for its study design, leading to still more questions:

Basically, how do we define a prayer?
How can we rule out prayer that might interfere with the study?
Should more mundane issues be established first?
Should we assume that the patient thinks that survival is the best outcome in all cases?
How can prayer studies accommodate ethical requirements for both informed consent and avoidance of undue anxiety? (pages 243-44)

But what evidence do we have that RSMEs change lives? “Generally, a basic character type is not changed; rather the experiencer’s priorities are changed. But are such changes true only of mystics and otherwise especially spiritual persons?” Apparently not. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an atheist columnist remarked, “Faith does breed charity: We atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings.” Gallup noted that “the research shows that the more spiritually committed a person is, the more he or she will spend time, energy, and money helping others”. Increased spirituality does not necessarily involve “retreat from the demands of real life”: “Many social activist and reformers . . . have been motivated by RSMEs, which is not surprising when we consider that people who work for justice face serious risks and must have strong reasons for persisting”.

Many detractors of RSMEs come, as we have seen from the ranks of biology. It is interesting to reflect that pioneer students of RSMEs William James (psychologist) and Alister Hardy (zoologist) were firmly grounded in the natural sciences and made great advances in the study of RSMEs for precisely that reason. (page 251)

I would add that one great exemplar of this is Henry Drummond, who was a professor of natural sciences during the week and an evangelical preacher on Sundays. His The Greatest Thing in the World, a sermon preached on I Cor. 13, is a classic.

“A key task for neuroscience today is to use the power of the natural sciences effectively, while circumventing . . . unproductive ideologies. One promising approach is to study RSMEs under conditions in which neuroscience can capture information”.

To be continued.


September 27, 2016

The Carmelite Studies: A New Direction?

This chapter begins with a decided new direction that caused quite an uproar: “In its spring 2005 newsletter, the Society for Neuroscience notified members of a new feature attraction at the upcoming 2005 annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The Dalai Lama had agreed to be the first-ever speaker in an annual lecture series, ‘Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society’”. The current Dalai Lama has always been interested in science:

[H]e enjoyed friendships with such luminaries as philosopher of science Karl Popper and physicists Carl von Weizsäcker and David Bohm. He has eagerly embraced the new neuroscientific research tools. He also helped establish and serves as honorary chairman of the Mind and Life Institute, which sponsors both neuroscientific research and in-depth dialogues between Buddhism and science. He has even encouraged his monks to serve as research subjects. On the face of it, the seventy-year-old lama seemed an ideal choice to set the pace for a series of lectures on neuroscience and society. (page 256)

All hell broke loose: “Political protest might have been anticipated” because of the Dalai Lama’s being “not only the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, but a revered figurehead of the Tibetan movement for independence from China”. But the protest campaign that broke out here “went well beyond politics”. Some neuroscientists tried to get the lecture canceled, claiming that it was “against the very foundation of neuroscience”. However:

Neuroscience has no evidence to offer on the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation, any more than it has evidence to offer on the Christian doctrine of incarnation. A scientific discipline can offer evidence on the subjects it can actually research. The neural states associated with mystical consciousness, for example, can be researched; hence the growing interest in the area. And the question of the relationship between the mind and the brain is, to put it mildly, hardly settled. (page 256)

Groups took sides. “To its credit, the society for Neuroscience did not back down. The Dalai Lama gave his scheduled address.” So why the uproar? “A population of monks or contemplatives willing to permit neuroscientists to study their meditative states is not easy to find and retain.” A recent study “suggests that the neural networks of trained meditators are better coordinated than those of untrained persons”. Questions arose that were thoroughly researchable, but some protestors threatened to cancel their own presentation or to boycott the meeting. Their stated concern was to avoid “entanglement with religion or politics”. But their threats and denunciations “were creating precisely the problem of entanglement with religion that they claim to deplore”. Our authors comment:

We can legitimately ask, is something more going on here? Were neuroscientific tools supposed to prove that the mind does not exist? In that case, the source of anxiety [driving the protests] becomes apparent: the study of meditative or mystical consciousness may threaten the comfort many take in materialism. What if we can image the brain, neuron by neuron, and still not demonstrate that materialism is true? . . . . Protests or no, research goes on. (pages 258-9)

The chapter goes on to describe several studies of brain activity during prayer. Better technology exists today, and these studies led to the brain-imaging studies of contemplative nuns conducted by senior author Mario Beauregard and his doctoral student Vincent Paquette, who “particularly wanted to study mystical union (unio mystica), a state in which one feels completely united with God, which is the ultimate goal of the contemplative Christian mystic. Typically, a very intense mystical experience occurs only once or twice in a lifetime of contemplation.”

The pair worked at two research centers, one at the Université de Montréal, where they had access to

powerful neuroimaging techniques, which we could supplement with personal interviews with our subjects. Most important, we were able to secure the cooperation of Carmelite nuns in Quebec, religious women who spend a great deal of time in contemplation and prayer. That latter point is tricky because a contemplative would not typically be willing to serve in a possibly controversial research project that does not flow directly from her vocation. (page 262)

They go on to describe how they secured the nuns’ cooperation by reassuring them “that we were not researching this area simply to ‘prove’ that mystical consciousness does not occur. We were able to tell them truthfully that we were not materialists and were not trying to debunk the mystical experiences that had led them to become nuns.” Beauregard phoned the prioress of the Carmelite convent in Montreal, who checked with her nuns and was able to state that some would participate if Sir John Templeton, a big fan of New Thought’s Unity and the supporter of much research on science and spirituality, would agree to fund the project. The usual objections soon surfaced, both from materialists and even from the religious side, one such complaining that “replicating the mystical experience ‘would be a catastrophe for religion,’ distorting religious meaning.” “But”, say our authors:

we have never entertained the idea of proving the existence of God! Our goals are decidedly more modest. The only thing that neuroscientists can really determine is whether current neuroscience provides useful information about mystical states and experiences. Specifically, we wanted to know two things: whether brain activity during mystical consciousness is localized in the temporal lobe, as some have argued, and whether mystical contemplation produces brain states not associated with ordinary consciousness. (page 265)

The whole project nearly blew up when a newspaper printed a photograph of the prioress. “Becoming a cloistered nun or monk means, among other things, giving up any intention of influencing the world other than through the power of prayer and contemplation . . . . Prayer and contemplation are viewed as helpful only if the nun has no desire to attract attention to herself. . . . Fortunately, Vincent Paquette’s admirable diplomacy persuaded the nuns to continue despite this lapse.” But from then on, they used stand-ins to demonstrate techniques for the media.

At the end of the first experiment, qualitative interviews showed that all the nuns had reported feeling

the presence of God and his unconditional and infinite love as well as plenitude and peace. Importantly, all of them reported that, from a first-person perspective, the experiences lived during the mystical condition differed from those used to self-induce a mystical state. They also reported the presence of visual and motor imagery during both the mystical and control conditions. In addition, the subjects experienced a feeling of unconditional love during the control condition. (page 271)

The authors report learning two valuable things from the studies. Taken together, the results “dispose of the notion that there is a God spot in the temporal lobes of the brain that can somehow ‘explain’ RSMEs”. Rather, they suggest that “RSMEs are neurally instantiated by different brain regions involved in a variety of functions, such as self-consciousness, emotion, body representation, visual and motor imagery, and spiritual perception. This conclusion correlates well with subjects’ descriptions of RSMEs as complex and multidimensional.”

“Second, when the nuns were recalling autobiographical memories, the brain activity was different from that of the mystical state. So we know for certain that the mystical state is something other than an emotional state. The abundance of theta activity during the mystical condition clearly demonstrated a marked alteration of consciousness in the nuns.” This increased theta activity has also been found in Zen meditation.

The authors conclude: “There is no need to choose between science and spirituality. But there is certainly a need, as there always has been, to choose between materialism and spirituality. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, nor can it adjudicate controversies between religions on doctrines. But it can rule out inadequate theories of RSMEs concocted by materialists.”

A series of boxes outlines the history of the Carmelites and brief descriptions of some of their noteworthy mystics, ending with Edith Stein, a Jewish convert, who was executed by the Nazis in 1941. Three Carmelite mystics received the title “Doctor of the Church” from the Roman Catholic Church. Only three women have been so honored, the third being a Dominican mystic.

To be concluded next week.


October 4, 2016

God Created Brain or Brain Creates God?

For this concluding chapter of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, the authors appropriately begin with a quotation from physicist Albert Einstein: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” The senior author goes on to remind us that

materialist neuroscientists and philosophers hold that mind, consciousness, and self are by-products of the brain’s electrical and chemical processes, and that RSMEs are “nothing but” brain states or delusions created by neural activity. Accordingly these scientists and philosophers believe that there is no spiritual source for RSMEs, that is, they think that the human brain creates these experiences and, in so doing, creates God. As this book has been a refutation of their views from a number of angles, it is only fair that I now set out my own view. (page 289)

Although “RSMEs and their neural correlates do not constitute a direct proof of the existence of God and the spiritual world[,] [i]t is unlikely that anything can constitute such a proof to a person who is determined to deny their existence.” But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: “demonstrating that specific brain states are associated with RSMEs does not show that such experiences are ‘nothing but’ brain states. And the fact that RSMEs have neural substrates does not mean that they are merely illusions.” He continues:

Thoughts and emotions are also associated with specific brain regions and circuits, but only radical materialists would say that they are illusions merely because they are neurally grounded.
Materialist nueroscience cannot reduce mind, consciousness, self, and RSMEs to “mere neurobiology.” I think that the evidence supports the view that individuals who have RSMEs do in fact contact an objectively real “force” that exists outside themselves. (page 290)

A quotation from psychologist Abraham Maslow suggests that older reports of mystical experiences “phrased in terms of supernatural revelation, were, in fact, perfectly natural, human peak experiences of the kind that can easily be examined today.” So he at least lets us in out of the rain. To insert a rant of my own, didn’t any of these pathetically materialist scientists ever take Philosophy 101 and learn the ground rules of internal consistency and coherence? Also, you have to use an appropriate tool: Materialists are heading onto the tennis court armed with a lacrosse stick, with which they proceed to beat the tennis players over the head for not accepting their view of reality. They ridicule religion as superstition, not realizing that scientism is itself a religion. Then they exert pressure to close the philosophy departments of institutions of higher learning. All of which goes to prove that man is not a rational animal!

The present authors next take up the spiritual nature of humans: “The transcendental impulse to connect with God and the spiritual world represents one of the most basic and powerful forces in Homo sapiens sapiens. For that reason, RSMEs point to a fundamental dimension of human existence. These experiences are at the heart of the world’s great religions.” They commonly occur across all cultures, including the American adult population. “RSMEs can have life-changing effects and lead to a marked psychospiritual transformation.” The authors add: “This high incidence of RSMEs in the American adult population indicates that such experiences should be considered normal rather than pathological. This is an important point, given that, historically, psychiatry has attempted to pathologize RSMEs.” Maslow firmly stood up to Freud on this conception, and the transpersonal psychology that he founded “recognizes that spiritual/mystical experiences provide important insights about the nature of reality and can be studied scientifically” and hypothesized “that RSMEs are a sign of mental health”. To support this are “the results of studies showing that people reporting RSMEs score lower on psychopathology measures and higher on psychological well-being scales than people not reporting such experiences”. Hah! Materialists hoisted on their own petards! The authors add, “This process of self-transcendence awakens one to one’s transcendental or spiritual self.” They allude to two people in the Christian tradition “profoundly transformed by an RSME: the apostle Paul and Francis of Assisi.

Although our authors have critiqued evolutionary psychology, they state that its error “is not its underpinnings in the fact of evolution, but rather its attempt to round spiritual experience in the qualities that animal nature requires in order to survive. Such accounts provide no explanation for the most significant evidence regarding spirituality and are unlikely ever to do so.” Fine, but they are overlooking evolution by divine design, which is a whole ‘nother animal. I refer you to the work of Henry Drummond (“Scottish Henry”) and all of process thought, spearheaded by Alfred North Whitehead, closely followed by Charles Hartshorne. Henry Wood (1834-1909) was a great admirer of Drummond (see my new book based on my old columns about Wood: Sunny Apartments, available from Amazon in softcover and Kindle editions). My own columns about Drummond begin here.

Moving right along, the brain mediates but does not produce RSMEs: “There is no scientific evidence showing that delusions or hallucinations produced by a dysfunctional brain can induce the kind of long-term positive changes and psychospiritual transformation that often follow RSMEs.”

RSMEs can occur when the brain is not functioning. Such findings lead me to posit that the transformative power of RSMEs arises from an encounter with an objectively real spiritual force that exists independently from the individuals who have the experience. (page 292)

Nearing the book’s conclusion, the senior author wants “to present . . . key elements of a nonmaterialist view of mind, consciousness, self, and RSMEs. He proceeds to describe his own mystical experiences since childhood, including states of “cosmic consciousness”. One such experience occurred when he was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. His experience “transformed me psychologically and spiritually, and gave me the strength necessary to successfully recover from my disease.”

Mind and consciousness represent a fundamental and irreducible property of the Ground of Being. Not only does the subjective experience of the phenomenal world exist within mind and consciousness, but mind, consciousness, and self profoundly affect the physical world’
Normally, individual selves are not aware of this Ground of Being. However, under certain circumstances, usually involving altered states of consciousness, individual selves can become aware of and even united with the Ground of Being, which underlies both the physical and psychological realms and constitutes the ultimate foundation of the self. Such mystical states implicate the direct intuitive experience of the “organic” unity and interconnectedness of everything in the universe. It is this fundamental unity and interconnectedness that allows the human mind to causally affect physical reality and permits psi interaction between humans and with physical or biological systems. With regard to this issue, it is interesting to note that quantum physicists increasingly recognize the mental nature of the universe. (page 294)

Alan, where are you when I need you? This is faintly suggestive of Tillich, but maybe this guy is ok. Can he say this?

Our senior author concludes this section by quoting physicist James Jeans to the effect that the universe looks “more like a great thought than a great machine”.

Final section:

If we are to make significant breakthroughs with regard to our understanding of human mind and consciousness as well as the development of the spiritual potential of humanity, we need a new scientific frame of reference. Such a frame will recognize that dogmatic materialist scientism is not synonymous with science. A scientific frame of reference must bring together the inner and the outer, the subjective and the objective, the first-person perspective and the third-person perspective. Mystical experience from various spiritual traditions indicates that the nature of mind, consciousness, and reality as well as the meaning of life can be apprehended through an intuitive, unitive, and experiential form of knowing. A scientific frame of reference must address the evidence for that. Such a framework would greatly stimulate the scientific investigation of the neural, physiological, psychological, and social conditions favoring the occurrence of RSMEs as well as the effects of RSMEs and spiritual practices on health and psychological and social functioning.
There is a trend in human evolution toward spiritualization of consciousness. The proposed new scientific frame of reference may accelerate our understanding of this process of spiritualization and significantly contribute to the emergence of a planetary type of consciousness. The development of this type of consciousness is absolutely essential if humanity is to successfully solve the global crises that confront us . . . and wisely create a future that benefits all humans and all forms of life on planet earth. (pages 294-5)

Next week, on to a new adventure!


October 11, 2016

A Digression in Praise of Digressions

If you recognize that title, you should already be chuckling. If you don’t, you had better Google A Tale of a Tub, which is brilliant early eighteenth-century satire. Amidst the weather, the political situation, the economic uncertainties, and the terrorists, I figure we need a little levity before we undertake further serious studies.

Wandering into the Philosopher’s library and idly scanning the shelves, my eye fell upon a little paperback, How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, by Will Cuppy. I had skimmed it and one of its sequels, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, many years ago, laughing out loud with Alan. He had made a long list of notes in his crabbed scholar’s handwriting in the back cover of Apes, and the margins are festooned with his classic squiggles, which replace the five-pointed stars that he never learned how to draw. Princess Ida will be the next Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera we are to perform in February; it features a lot of joking about feminists who consider Darwinian man no better than an ape: “Darwinian man, though well behaved/ At best, is only a monkey shaved!” (Don’t worry; the females get their comeuppance, and it all ends happily in zany G&S style.) So Apes seemed apropos, and I started to reread it. Any place I opened it and began reading had me falling-down laughing. Cuppy was a skilled columnist and dedicated scholar, who spent endless hours researching everything he wrote, but he just couldn’t resist poking fun at all life’s foibles. Your local library may have a copy, or you can buy it on Amazon. It was originally published in 1931. Edward R. Murrow read sections of it aloud on his radio show and cracked up laughing.

Below are representative samples from Apes. Enjoy!

Memoirs of the Jukes Family
or Where We Come In

The Modern Man

The Modern Man or Nervous Wreck is the highest of all mammals because anyone can see that he is. There are about 2,000,000,000 Modern Men or too many. The Modern Man’s highly developed brain has made him what he is and you know what he is.1 The Development of his brain is caused by his upright or bipedal position, as in the Penguin, the Dinosaur and other extinct reptiles. Modern Man has been called the Talking Animal because he talks more than any three other animals chosen at random. He has also been called the Reasoning Animal but there may be a catch in this. The fissure of Sylvius and the fissure of Rolando enable him to argue in circles. His main pursuits in the order named are murder, robbery, kidnapping, body-snatching, barratry, nepotism, arson and mayhem. This is known as the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Modern Men are viviparous. They mature slowly but make up for it later, generally from July first to June thirtieth inclusive. The females carry nickels and pins in their mouths. They are fond of glittering objects, bits of ribbon and olives.2 All Modern Men are descended from a Wormlike creature but it shows more on some people. Modern Man will never become extinct if the Democrats can help it.3

  1. It is because of his brain that he has risen above the animals. Guess which animals he has risen above.
  2. Each male has from 2 to 790 females with whom he discusses current events. Of these he marries from 3 to 17.
  3. To be perfectly fair, Modern Man was invented on October 25, 4004 B.C., at 9 o’clock in the morning, according to the statement of Dr. John Lightfoot (1602-1675) of Stoke-upon-Trent, Vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Dr. Lightfoot’s Whole Works comes in thirteen volumes. (pages 29-30)

How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes
or A Monkey a Day

The Chimpanzee

The Chimpanzee1 is found in Equatorial Africa and vaudeville. He is the brightest of the Anthropoid Apes because he is so classified by scientists with incomes over five thousand dollars. If the scientist places a banana in a box the Chimpanzee will go and get it and eat it. The Chimpanzee also likes hominy, lettuce, raspberries, weak tea and black beetles. Chimpanzees are highly excitable and partly web-footed. They are amusing but terribly shallow. They can be very trying. The love life of Chimpanzees is about what you might expect. When a Chimpanzee looks at another Chimp he does not see what we see. They frequently have twins. Male Chimpanzees are called Soko or Bam. Females are called Malapunga. Chimpanzee sweethearts say very little. They can say “Yes” and “No” and “Thank you very much.”2 They can count up to five. They are faithful within reason. In the chimpanzee the hallux is opposable and the pollex is not. In Man it is just the other way round so it all comes out even. The chimpanzee smokes, rides a bicycle and wears pants. His chief ambition is to play the Palace. The Chimpanzee has one-third enough brain and that’s something. Or is it?

  1. Aristotle did not mention Chimps but they got along somehow.
  2. What they really say is gak gak, ngak ngak and wha wha. Chimpanzees find these words sufficient for all practical purposes. (pages 33-34)

Mammals You Ought to Know
or Why Be a Rhinoceros?

The Giraffe

The Giraffe or Camelopard is rather fantastic but who isn’t? Giraffes are so tall because their ancestors ate the top branches of trees. The shorter Giraffes could not reach the top branches and died off. Why the shorter Giraffes did not eat the tops of shorter trees seems very strange. Perhaps it never occurred to them.1 When standing beside a mimosa the Giraffe is indistinguishable from the tree except that he has four legs and a head and a tail. Some hunters will stalk a mimosa tree for days without getting results. Others take to stalking apple trees. The Giraffe is vague and fitful. He never knows what he may do next.2 The herd is governed by an experienced male who is governed by several experienced females. The males spend the months of April and May in kicking each other in the shins. The young are born in June of the following year.3 The Northern or Reticulated Giraffe is almost completely reticulated. The Southern or Blotchy Giraffe has large liquid brown eyes and they don’t mean a thing.4 Among the N’jemps of Legumukum Giraffes are regarded as sacred because they are worth so much money. A first class guaranteed Giraffe will cost you about fifteen thousand dollars. What this country needs is a good medium-priced Giraffe.5

  1. The Giraffe’s neck invariably strikes a certain type of mind as a subject for dubious jests about tonsillitis and the like. Theoretically, at least, it should be possible to discuss this feature of the Giraffe without recourse to loud and vacant laughter. Nevertheless there seems little excuse for so much neck in any one animal.
  2. Giraffes worry a good deal about the Machine Age. They simply do not understand people who say, “Isn’t it wonderful—all these new inventions?” To a giraffe any invention of whatever nature is rank poison. He may decide to become extinct.
  3. Curiously, most animals are born in the spring, although it is often stated that animals cannot count. If that is so, then how do the parents figure out—I mean to say, why do they always—anyway, it turns out all right.
  4. Of the Giraffe’s rather sentimental facial expression, an authority remarks, “He seems to reflect, to think, to deliberate.” Well, you could say that of almost anybody!
  5. As a pet, the Giraffe can be overdone. They are somewhat conspicuous, and the cheaper grades have a tendency to attract moths. They will eat forage biscuits, cereals, mulberry leaves, artificial flowers and paint. The worst of it is, people keep shouting at you, “Where did you get that Giraffe?” (pages 129-130)

P. S. You really should see the marvelous accompanying illustrations by Jacks.


October 18, 2016

Constructive Postmodernism?

At first blush, constructive postmodernism may sound like an oxymoron. Not at all, but like so many things in philosophy, you can’t quite get it into a ten-word telegram. Philosophers have an enormous amount of sitzfleisch and are willing to spend hours poring over volumes with slabs of prose and no aids for the reader. The rest of us would rather occasionally get some fresh air. I have said before that one of my main functions on earth seems to be acting as a translator from academics to normal people.

I have therefore made another foray into the Philosopher’s library and come up with a book by one of the clearest of the process philosopher/theologians, David Ray Griffin. His work is undoubtedly meaty, but still readable. He makes important distinctions that normal people can follow, if they are willing to make the effort. I will stay with this work until and unless I decide to jump to something else in an effort to follow a train of thought concerning process thought but also—I hope—of interest and relevance to New Thoughters.

Griffin edits—and I don’t know whether he is still at it—the State University of New York (SUNY) series in Constructive Postmodern Thought. The volume I have settled on for the moment appeared in 1989 and is titled God & Religion in the Postmodern World: Essays in Postmodern Theology. I think it is useful to go back just a bit and see where some current trends got started, since we know all too clearly what state they are in at present. Griffin sets the stage with an introduction to the series, followed by a Preface, followed by the first essay (rather than chapter, because these were all written by Griffin himself as stand-alone essays). So take a deep breath and we’ll begin with the back cover, which shouldn’t be too threatening.

The naturalistic theism presented in this book is addressed to readers who have found liberal theology empty or who believe that one cannot be religious and fully rational and empirical at the same time. Griffin shows that the postmodern view is more empirical and rational than that of late modern materialism. [After our voyage through The Spiritual Brain, I hope you are at least already halfway there.]
This is not a return to early modern dualistic supernaturalism. The mechanism and sensationalism of Descartes and Newton precluded a real union of religion and science. Griffin’s postmodernism offers a deeply religious and fully scientific theology, providing a new basis for spiritual discipline and for a pacific mortality that could reverse the militarism of modernity.
Griffin proposes a revisionary, constructive postmodern theology challenging the deconstructive philosophy that calls itself postmodern and leads to relativism and nihilism.

At the end of the Preface, Griffin extends thanks “to those members of the Center for a Postmodern World who talked me out of my original title, ‘Beyond Nihilism and Supernaturalism,’ and especially to Frank Kelly for suggesting the present title”. I’m sure we all are grateful to them as well.

All right, since the Preface is much shorter than the series introduction, we’ll look just a bit longer at it and then call it a week, during which you can be eagerly salivating about getting more deeply into this.

With his series title, Griffin hopes to outline a position broad enough “to encompass a variety of positions”, and process thinkers do indeed come in various flavors, some of which we will find more congenial than others. So what else is new? Unlike two preceding volumes in the series, all the essays in this volume were written by Griffin himself and reflect his personal views.

Like many other current books, this one seeks to return theological reflection to the public domain. [Yay! The church kept too much of this stuff locked away from the laity for far too long.] While I hope that the essays herein will be found interesting to my fellow theologians and philosophers of religion, they were originally written for two types of readers: those nonmodern people who are intensely interested in religious or spiritual issues but who have found traditional theology incredible and modern theology irrelevant, and those fully modern people who, because of the assumptions they have imbibed from modern culture, have dismissed religious spirituality as well as theology. To the former, I propose a form of theology that is very different from traditional theologies and that takes seriously many beliefs and practices generally dismissed or ignored by modern theologians. To the latter, I propose a worldview that is more coherent than the modern worldview and more helpful ethically; at least this is the claim.
By theology I mean rational reflection about what we take to be holy, that is, of ultimate importance for its own sake. For various reasons, this type of reflection has dropped out of the public domain in the modern world, especially in the United States, this most modern of all nations. The results have been unfortunate at best, disastrous at worst. All decisions finally imply convictions about the holy, or matters of ultimate importance. Because we do not reflect together as a people about what we believe to be holy in this sense, we have no means for our policies to be shaped by our deepest intuitions and our highest thoughts about this most fundamental question. Our public policies are more likely to be shaped by the narrow self-interest of the most powerful segments of our society and thereby to reflect values that we would, upon reflection, consider to be only quasi-holy, even demonic. [And sadly, this is truer than ever today!!]
One of the main dimensions of the postmodern age into which we are moving is a rejection of the modern approach to religious belief, which either denied its truth a priori and wholesale or restricted its relevance to the private domain. The postmodern consciousness believes that religious intuitions should have at least equal weight with sensory, mathematical, and logical intuitions in constructing a worldview, and that it is irrational to declare the specifically religious dimension of our worldview irrelevant to public life. [Alas, we still seem to be headed the wrong direction on this one.] One reason for this latter claim is that public and private life really cannot be separated. [As both our presidential candidates are learning the hard way!]
Questioning the modern privatization of religion does not necessarily betoken a desire for a theocracy or some other form of religious state. That impulse is more premodern than postmodern. The postmodern discontent with modernity raises, instead, a most difficult question: Is it possible to move toward a form of theology that would through its intrinsic merits evoke a sufficiently broad response that the values implicit in it would replace the values of the modern worldview [progressivism] that have dominated public policy?
The phrase “through its intrinsic merits” is crucial. Unlike premodern theology, whose ultimate appeal is to authority and which, on the basis of this appeal, excuses various types of incoherence and experiential inadequacy, postmodern theology makes its claims in terms of its internal coherence, its adequacy to experience, and its illuminating power. This principle is hereby suggested for the evaluation of all potential public theologies: A public theology must be able to pass public scrutiny. And to pass public scrutiny is to pass those tests that are more or less explicitly applied to any account presented for public acceptance, whether it be an elaborate scientific theory or a story to a trial jury: Is the account self-consistent? Is it adequate to all known facts? Does it tie several known facts together in a new, illuminating way? And (ideally) does it illuminate previously unknown facts? My efforts surely fall far short of these austere ideals. But I and others will be helped if critics will point out how my proposals are deficient when judged in terms of these ideals, rather than, say, when judged in terms of the modern dogmas that they challenge. (pages xiii-xiv)

To be continued.


October 25, 2016

Introduction to Postmodern Theology

Unlike the other essays (rather than chapters), which were already written for other occasions and have been edited into shape by process philosopher David Ray Griffin for God and Religion in the Postmodern World (1989), this first essay/chapter was written specifically for this book. Griffin breaks cleanly from the gate:

Theology fell from grace in the modern world. Having been the “queen of the sciences” in the middle ages, it is now not generally counted among the intellectually respectable disciplines. . . . The reference on an editorial page to an argument as “theological” usually means that the proponent defends a faith-commitment in the face of overwhelming disconfirming evidence, employs meaningless distinctions, or both. The way to refer disparingly to those who formulate rationales and strategies for nuclear weapons is to call them “nuclear theologians.” (page 1)

Griffin goes on to outline two types of theology and two reasons for its fate in the modern world:

One type is conservative-to-fundamentalist theology, which is based on appeals to supernatural revelation that will not withstand historical scrutiny and which makes assertions about the world that are disproved by science. The other type is modern liberal theology, which avoids contradicting modern historical and scientific knowledge by not asserting anything significant; it uses the word God—if indeed it uses it at all—in a Pickwickian way to put a religious gloss over secularism’s nihilistic picture of reality. Because conservative-to-fundamentalist theology is unscientific, and modern liberal theology is vacuous, both can be ignored. Because these two types of theology have constituted the whole of the public image of theology, the conclusion has been that theology as such could be ignored. (pages 1-2)

This is no surprise because “God, transcendent values, and the human soul (with freedom), which are at the heart of any significant religious vision based upon the biblical tradition, are not allowed to play a role in the universe by the ‘modern scientific worldview’”. Therefore, “theologians have seemed forced either to reject or ignore science and its worldview, thereby being antiscientific, or to accept them, thereby having a theology without God, transcendent values, and a self-determining soul”. Otherwise, it’s terrific.

Griffin then mentions a third form of theology “which challenged the modern worldview in the name not of an antiscientific authoritarianism but of a more fully rational understanding of reality. Its proponents, however, have not been very many or very visible, and its divergencies from modern liberal theology have been minor and/or timidly stated”; so, says Griffin, it is “understandable” that it wouldn’t make it into the public image, “which is necessarily drawn in broad strokes”. But don’t give up yet.

The other reason that theology was shunted to the edges of modernity (we are now postmodern, for lack of a better term, yet) is that it had been considered irrelevant as compared to modernity’s theology-substitutes. “A theology is an articulation and defense of a community of faith’s path to salvation. In modern liberal society, salvation is to be achieved through material progress, which comes about through the marketplace and scientific technology”. Instead of theology, we have “[e]conomics and natural science, buttressed by the philosophy of science”. And then we wonder why we are anxious, nervous wrecks. Natural science replaces Roman Catholic “fundamental theology” and Protestant “apologetics”. This is supposed to be “the most reliable channel through which truth is revealed”. Griffin elaborates: “The god of science is a jealous god, allowing no other gods before it: metaphysics and common sense, as well as theology, are denounced as ‘unscientific’.”

But the worm appears to be turning, at least in 1989, when this was written:

[A] postmodern world appears to be dawning. Negatively, confidence is waning in the materialistic worldview and in salvation through material progress. Positively, a postmodern worldview is emerging, supported by many scientists and scientific developments, and great interest in postmodern forms of community and spiritual life is becoming manifest. (page 3)

In this brave new world, theology will look quite different. “The emergence of a postmodern worldview, supporting and supported by a postmodern science, provides the context in which a postmodern theology can be accepted”, one with “a genuinely religious vision of the world”. It can build upon the third form of theology that Griffin mentioned, with “a more rational, more empirical, description of reality” than the modern one. These essays will supply both example and direction for a postmodern theology. They will deal with “ideas of God, religion, creation, science and theology, the human soul, immortality, spiritual discipline, and ethics”. Its theism will be naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic, and can accordingly deal with divine causation, so we have “a naturalism that is theistic, and a theism that is naturalistic”. So Griffin nails his colors to the mast: “The essays in this book constitute an example of a postmodern theology and thereby a proposal for the direction theology should take in the postmodern period.” From here on in this introduction, he supplies us with its distinctive features.

In epistemological terms, postmodern theology is based on the idea of nonsensory perception, which is “our fundamental mode of relating to our environment, from which sensory perception is derivative. This affirmation challenges one of the main pillars of modern thought, its sensationism, according to which sense-perception is our basic and only way of perceiving realities beyond ourselves.” Nonsensory perception is what Whitehead called prehension. Remember that Whitehead was heavily into quantum physics and mathematics and deserves to be listened to. This “radical, nonsensationist empiricism” allows us to break free of culturally conditioned frameworks “and is therefore common to us all”. We are also able to break free of the mechanistic idea of nature, which forced us to choose between dualism and materialism, “both of which are extremely problematic”, says Griffin. “Dualism left the modern mind unable to explain its relation to its body; materialism led the modern mind to deny itself.” Although modern thought came up with alternatives to dualism and materialism (think Hume, Kant, Berkeley, and Hegel), Griffin says these are “equally problematic”, so they don’t get around much.

Another important feature of postmodern theology is panexperientialism, which attributes feeling and intrinsic value to “all individuals comprising nature”. Panexperientialism is “the ontological basis for naturalistic theism, which seems so strange to the modern mind, given this mind’s assumption that experience is not natural”. By assuming that experience is fully natural, postmodern theology “finds it natural to speak of a divine, all-inclusive experience”.

Next comes creativity. “The two terms should be used together: all experience is creative experience. Creativity is . . . considered the ultimate reality, which is embodied by all individuals, from God to electrons.” If this is your first exposure to process thought, you are probably scratching your head and muttering “Huh?” Not to worry: individual essays will make this a lot clearer. For now, just set up a row of mental pegs for hanging future details on. Pointy-head psychologists call such pegs advance organizers.

Another biggie: “Postmodern theology’s naturalistic theism, along with its distinctive doctrine of nature, provides the basis for a new understanding of the relation between science and theology.” They don’t have to be antagonistic to each other at all. Whew! “Postmodern theology proposes a way of speaking straightforwardly about theistic evolution”, despite the snots who reject any sort of evolution by divine design without hanging around long enough to find out what it means. God must love snots; he made so many of them! We also get to combine “a high doctrine of human nature with an ecological approach to nature, in which intrinsic value is attributed to all entities”, allowing us to recover “The Importance of Being Human”: “an ecological viewpoint need not lead to equalitarianism”. Griffin explains: “The key ideas here are degrees of intrinsic value, the directionality of evolution toward organisms with greater intrinsic value, and a divine perspective in which intrinsic as well as ecological value is cherished.” Also, “[g]iven postmodern assumptions... the possibility of life after death can be affirmed without abandoning a naturalistic standpoint”. No supernatural intervention or supernatural gift/leap of faith is required. Griffin assures us that we can overcome “that division between religious liberals and conservatives...which was inevitable in the modern period”. No forced choice is required. Yet “a liberal method supports a significant theology with robust doctrines of God .... The main reason for adopting an authoritarian method is overcome. People no longer have to choose between having a meaningful faith and being fully empirical and reasonable.” And we are also going to move toward overcoming the separation between theory and practice, getting away from the tendency to divide everything into disciplines and pigeonhole it. “[T]he soul has significant power to shape itself . . . because the effectiveness of divine grace in the world is not unilaterally determined by God”.

The final chapter will liberate us from demonic forces.

And yes, Griffin is really prepared to wade into all of this and drain the swamp; he reminds me of a superb martial artist taking on a gang of back-alley thugs as he mows down fallacious arguments.

What is called postmodern theology here is obviously very different from much that goes under this name. In the other major type of philosophy and theology to which the term postmodern is often applied—which is called eliminative or deconstructive postmodernism in the introduction to the series—all the points here are denied, namely God, nonsensory and prelinguistic perception, the perception of objective values, the self-determining human soul, and the universality of creativity and experience. By eliminating God, the self, and all objective value and meaning, this [destructive] form of thought simply carries modern thought to its logical conclusion, and is therefore really ultramodern rather than postmodern. It could better be called mostmodern theology. In following out Nietzsche’s insight that the death of God leads to nihilism, this ultramodernism brings out the nihilistic implications that were present in the modern worldview from the outset. The postmodern theology of this book stands in contrast to this nihilistic postmodernism as well as to the modernism whose nihilistic implications are drawn out by it. (page 8)

Griffin is a Christian theologian; is this theology specifically Christian, “or is it a philosophical (or ‘natural’ ) theology, which could provide a foundation equally well for Jewish, Christian, or Islamic theologians—and perhaps even Buddhist, Hindu, and Primal theologians? There is, I hope, some truth in both answers.” In a sense, postmodern theology is not specifically Christian, in other senses, it is. We all see reality from a particular perspective, so it “necessarily reflects a Western Christian perspective on the nature of reality”. Primary philosophers Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne both had fathers who were Anglican priests, although both philosophers studied other philosophical-religious traditions, and to some extent were successful in this approach with Buddhists. Griffin states, “Central to my own perspective is the conviction that the divine character, purpose, and mode of agency have been decisively manifested through Jesus of Nazareth” without getting into into “any metaphysical claims about God’s unique presence or action through Jesus that [many other] religions could not in principle accept”.

One final point: the theology of Whitehead and Hartshorne “has long been called process theology. Is postmodern theology, as developed here, just a new name for process theology?” To some extent, yes, but

not all process thought could equally well be called postmodern. In the first place, one can be a process philosopher or theologian without giving explicit and thematic attention to the contrast between premodern, modern, and postmodern, and showing how process thought provides a solution to distinctively modern problems and recovers some premodern truths and values. (page 10)

Further, many process thinkers have a tendency “to modernize Whitehead, that is, to reject, ignore, or at least not bring out the implications of just those features of his position that are distinctively postmodern”. One example is a position called “Whitehead without God”, which does not mention Whitehead’s “allowance for action at a distance”, or even disallows it; and Griffin of course lists other equally egregious examples.

Griffin concludes:

My use of the term postmodern calls attention to the fact that the contrast between modern and postmodern theology is thematized, that the distinctively postmodern elements in Whitehead’s metaphysics are accepted and emphasized, and that other postmodern possibilities are developed. (page 11)

It is interesting to note how very popular Whitehead’s writings are in China.

To help you retain some shreds of your sanity, here are the chapter/essay titles:

  1. Introduction: Postmodern Theology
  2. The Importance of Being Human: A Postmodern Vision
  3. Creativity and Postmodern Religion
  4. God in the Postmodern World
  5. Evolution and Postmodern Theism
  6. Postmodern Animism and Life after Death
  7. Spiritual Discipline in the Medieval, Modern, and Postmodern Worlds
  8. Imperialism, Nuclearism, and Postmodern Theism

Plus a ton of endnotes, of course.

To be continued.


November 1, 2016

The Importance of Being Human

Chapter/essay #2, “The Importance of Being Human: A Postmodern Vision” is—as promised—far less complicated than the introductory overview. Griffin gets right at it:

A widespread conviction exists in our time that many of our most important qualities are in imminent danger of being lost. Historians can show that this feeling is not unique to our time. In our century, however, the concern seems to be more widespread, more intense, and more enduring. It makes sense, therefore, to ask about the root cause of this crisis, and what we can do, if anything, to preserve and strengthen what we consider our most valuable human qualities.
The root cause of our crisis, I believe, is the modern worldview. The early sections of this essay explain this belief. The last section points to a postmodern worldview that should help. (page 13)

What’s scary is that this was written in 1989, and things have grown steadily worse. If it is true that human affairs go in cycles, maybe we are now in the process of bottoming out and at last starting up again. The helpful postmodern worldview is—of course—process thought, the only constructive postmodern philosophy. There are other constructive (well, at least trying to improve things somewhat) philosophies from earlier times, but they are not postmodern. The other new postmodern philosophy is very destructive.

The essay has five sections, setting the table with (I) Persons, Importance and Worldviews, explaining (II) The Transition from the Medieval to the Modern Worldview, elaborating on (III) Living in Terms of the Modern Worldview, distinguishing (IV) The Two Stages of the Modern Worldview (very helpful if you haven’t seen it before), and finally, (V) A Postmodern Worldview.

I. “The kind of persons a society produces depends on the society’s sense of importance”, which has two basic sources: a Cosmic Source of Importance, and “the stories by which we live”. We can “apprehend or intuit, more or less dimly” this Cosmic Source: “Our feeling that some things are important, and that some things are more important than others, is ultimately rooted in our intuition of the values inherent in this Cosmic Source of Importance.” But people differ so greatly as to what is important (although there is some unanimity), that we need this second source of importance. This involves stories of individual lives, particular communities, and “the stories of the larger communities in which these are embedded”. Most important of all is “the story of the universe that a culture accepts”, for it embodies a culture’s worldview. “A worldview indicates which factors in our experience are the most important factors in reality as a whole”: what is eternal rather than transitory; what are the primary causal powers, “not secondary and derivative. Our worldview tells us what should be of ultimate concern to us by showing what is of ultimate importance in the very nature of things.”

Griffin continues:

Ultimate concern was Paul Tillich’s term for religion and its object. Whatever is of ultimate concern or importance to you is in effect your deity. The beliefs, emotions, attitudes, and practices oriented around this ultimate concern constitute your real religious life—regardless of the religious institution to which you may or may not belong. The ultimate basis for every religion is a worldview, and every worldview suggests a religion. (page 14)

This includes not only the religions of the book, but also Vedanta, Taoism, the “scientific” Marxist, and the Social Darwinist. In each case, the basic desire is “to be in harmony with that which is most important in the nature of things”.

II. Next, we need to examine “the transition from the medieval to the modern worldview. In this transition, the importance of being human was reduced drastically.” In the medieval worldview were three features “crucial for the importance of being human”: 1. The world was created by a personal God, so [p]ersonal qualities . . . were thereby regarded as eternal, primordial, and foundational”. 2. “[H]uman beings were said to have a privileged place in the scheme of things . . . created in the very image of God. . . . near the top of a great chain of being. So we humans “both belonged and were special”. 3. “[L]ife on earth was not the end, but only the beginning, of our existence.” Heaven and hell, however horrible, meant that what we do and whom we become are “extremely important”. The modern worldview denies all three of these elements. Impersonal forces—chance and necessity—replace a personal God. Nature’s powers are impersonal. Nobody knows what we really are, deep down, so how can it be important? We humans are “no longer the chief exemplification of the general qualities of the universe”, not created in the image of God, and the importance of being human is belittled. Qualities are primary, secondary, and tertiary: primary being really real (size, shape, mass) and hence quantitative, objective, and impersonal. Secondary qualities are thought to refer to nothing really “out there” and objective: color, sound, smell, taste, heat, etc. So matter is real, but the sound of music is somehow less important. And there really is no such thing as beauty, which is purely tertiary. Virtues and vices such as the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues, and the three theological virtues are also tertiary. So “having becomes more important than being”, and we head straight down the slippery slope. Humans are insignificant, “accidental products of a blind, impersonal process”. And the theory of evolution was the coup de grâce. Thirdly, the materialistic worldview denies any idea of life after death. “With this threefold denial of the medieval basis for the importance of being human, the modern worldview has cast its inhabitants into a cosmos that is a meaningless void, and in which they are aliens.”

III. This leads to despair for many sensitive human beings. “The meaninglessness of the universe has provided the backdrop for that type of philosophy usually called existentialism”. Let us tiptoe past Sartre, Kafka, and Camus. Griffin next quotes a despairing passage from—of all people—Bertrand Russell, co-author with Whitehead of Principia Mathematica. Griffin comments, “Although this existentialist advice is noble and courageous, it is, in the last resort, futile.” But people still want to be in harmony with what is considered important, so they don’t fight it; Social Engineering has replaced existentialism:

In the academic world, especially in artistic, literary, philosophical, and theological circles, the existentialist standpoint is today expressed in what is widely called a postmodern mood. This postmodernism, like the earlier atheistic existentialism, draws heavily upon Friedrich Nietsche, especially his insight that the “death of God” implies nihilism. But, whereas the existentialist rebelled against the absurdity of the universe in the name of the authenticity of the self, the self has disappeared for the nihilistic postmodernist along with God and objective values. (pages 19-20)

And such outdated notions as the self need to be deconstructed to make room for new ideas, which somehow never materialize, so we sit in the rubble of unfulfilled promises. We ditch the modern worldview without providing anything but an antiworldview that carries the modern worldview to its logical conclusions, most accurately called ultramodernism with its relativistic, nihilistic features. So how can we react against this monstrosity? “The most prevalent way to react against the modern worldview has been to return to some form of premodern worldview . . . . usually some form of religious orthodoxy, possibly creationist science or a “perennial philosophy”, which is “essentially accepting a premodern worldview found in Hindu or Buddhist scriptures.”

Happily, there is a third way to reject the modern worldview besides going premodern or antiworldview. It would agree with the nihilists that it is impossible to simply “return to a premodern outlook” but holds, “we must pass beyond modernity”, yet still require a worldview that lets us “understand our own place in the scheme of things”. It challenges and revises some modern basic presuppositions, yet it does retain many of the truths and values of the modern worldview. Yes, Griffin is going to lead us out of this mess, but first, things have to get temporarily more complicated by taking another look at the transition from the medieval to the modern worldview.

IV. The modern worldview developed in two stages. The first stage (Boyle & Newton, England), (Mersenne & Descartes, France) did not reject a personal God, the human self as special, and life after bodily death. Instead, it adopted a mechanistic view of nature to buttress these beliefs: “The personal God’s absolute transcendence and power over the creation, including the supernatural power to intervene in the world’s processes at will, were emphasized as strongly as possible.” In other words, it kicked God upstairs to protect him, so the world was “purely God’s creation, having no creative power of its own. But the human soul was no longer at the top of the a chain of being that included the rest of creation: “An absolute gulf between the human soul and the rest of the creation below it was instead posited” as “pure matter, with no consciousness, not even any unconscious feeling or striving”. This is where the distinction among primary, secondary, and tertiary qualities developed. Further, dualistic doctrine claimed that mind and matter were equally real. The motive of this dualism was to increase the importance of the human mind or soul, and to protect the plausibility of the claim that it survived the death of its body....”

But the best-laid plans of mice and men.... “The idea of God as an omnipotent personal being, totally determining the structure and events of the world, soon led to atheism, partly because of the problem of evil, partly because the idea that the world is a machine made God’s action in it difficult to conceive.” Next thing we knew, we were wrestling with the problem of interaction: how could an immaterial, personal soul interact with a material, impersonal, machine-like body. Oh, sure, the mind/soul is epiphenomenal, so the mind exercises no power, so lose the soul, and the mind is identical with the brain, and there goes the epiphenomenon, not to mention life after death.

This takes us from the first stage of modernism to the second stage: “the modern worldview because it has become increasingly dominant in intellectual circles since the eighteenth century, and especially since the latter half of the nineteenth”. So this atheistic/materialistic worldview

seems better than the one it replaced, the supernaturalistic-dualistc view, with which advocates of the materialistic worldview still do battle. The materialistic-atheistic view did not win out in intellectual circles because scientific facts required it; they did not. It did not win out because it is free from problems; it is not. . . [about which Griffin has long waxed eloquent]. Rather, it won out partly because it fit the spirit of the times and partly because it could easily point out the problems in dualistic supernaturalism, which it presumed to be the only serious alternative. Once we realize this, we become more free to challenge this reigning orthodoxy by presenting a third alternative. (pages 22-23)

Having seen the first-stage assumptions that led to the overthrow of the modern worldview, we can “scrutinize them more closely”. So here comes “a postmodern vision in which crucial assumptions of the modern worldview are rejected, and in which some truths and values lost in the modern interlude are recaptured”. Griffin will be not so much defending it as pointing out “its implications for the importance of being human and preserving our most precious human qualities”, thereby coming full circle here.

V. Griffin stresses: “[A] postmodern view is that it must be self-supporting; that is, its claim to truth cannot be based on some alleged revelation. . . . [T]he claim that the ideas are true must be based upon their intrinsic convincingness: they must pass the usual tests of self-consistency and adequacy to all the facts of experience.” This “distinguishes a postmodern view from most premodern ones”.

Once again we have a human personal self , natural and belonging to the created world, the “crown of creation”. “This dual view provides a basis for rejecting anthromorphism, according to which other creatures are emptied of all importance except their usefulness to human beings, while at the same time holding that human beings are intrinsically more important than other earthly creatures.” Included in this view is panenergism (the basic building blocks of the universe are energy). Einstein’s formula showed energy and mass as convertible. Whitehead expanded energy to creativity and extended it to living cells and to mind or souls:

No dualism obtains between (internally) active minds and passive bodies, as in first-stage modernity, or between (externally) active bodies and passive, unreal minds, as in second-stage modernity. Minds and constituents of bodies both have (internal and external) energy, or creativity, and thereby the power to initiate activity. (pages 23-24)

Closely related is the idea of panexperientialism: all individuals are experiences. A rock is an aggregate of individual atoms, a human of cells. “[A]pes, alligators, amoebae, and alpha particles” are all individuals. Therefore everything, having experience, has value or importance in and for itself and deserves respect. This exalts the human being without denigrating everything else. And no mind-body interaction problem. Experience and its qualities are regarded as primary, and modernity’s primaries are now secondary or tertiary. “Being human is again important in the nature of things. . . . To focus on developing particular qualities of soul is to concern oneself with qualities of the ultimately real.”

In constructive postmodernity, the world is again seen as the creation of a personal deity, but not the one who created ex nihilo so that the world had no power of its own. That God was undermined by the problem of evil. “The postmodern God created our present world not by calling it into existence out of absolute nothingness, but by bringing order out of a chaotic realm of energetic events.” So God “neither controls all things not interrupts the natural processes. . . . God does not coerce, but persuades. God does not create unilaterally, but inspires the creatures to create themselves by instilling new feelings of importance in them.” Personal creation is not to be undermined by empirical facts. The universe “again has an all-inclusive vision, an all-inclusive meaningful story, in which our communal and individual stories can have their meanings. The all-inclusive story is what the Divine One is doing with the world: creating beauty.” The reality of the soul as distinct from the physical body is affirmed, minus the first-stage modern dualism, so we “are free to look at the evidence, such as that from parapsychology, for the idea that life goes on”. However,

nothing living can simply be preserved indefinitely in its present form. . . . Our task is not simply to recover, or to preserve, the best way of being human developed in the past. Our task is to envisage, and incarnate, a still better way, a way that fulfills the human potential more fully, a way that more completely realizes the image of God in us. (page 26)

Griffin concludes the chapter with a comment that “learning to interact with each other in terms of persuasion, without resort to violent coercion. . . .” we have the “capacity to persuade and be persuaded”, which takes great courage, one of the four cardinal virtues.

I hope this trail of breadcrumbs through a deep wood will leave you feeling heartened and encouraged, even though you may still have places where you want more philosophical detail. Just stay tuned.............


November 8, 2016

Creativity and Postmodern Religion

Chapter/essay 3 outlines how modernism has led to destructive postmodernism, then replaces it with constructive postmodernism. Nearly a hundred years ago the constructive ideas of Whitehead and Hartshorne began to show us the way out of centuries of spiritual darkness, much of which was in the era known as modern.

The modern world arose through a clash of two spiritualities and has embodied a compromise between them. One was a spirituality of creativity originating in the scientific, philosophical, religious Renaissance which, coming after the literary and humanistic Renaissance of the fourteenth century, spread northward from its origins in Italy in the latter half of the fifteenth century. The other was a spirituality of obedience stemming from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. After defeating the previously dominant spirituality of Christian Aristotelianism, these two spiritualities in effect reached a compromise, with the spirituality of obedience dominant. The spirituality of creativity would inform only scientific and artistic life, while the spirituality of obedience would inform religious and moral life and also the worldview of the scientific as well as the religious communities. (page 29)

This chapter concerns “the transition from the premodern to the modern world in terms of the clash between these two spiritualities”. Because the spirituality of obedience prevailed in both scientific and religious worldviews, problems arose, but developments in those two communities now point towards a recovery of the spirituality of creativity in a postmodern form. But this is not to “deny that the spirituality of obedience was also based upon a true intuition”.

I. The Conflict Between the Spiritualities of Creativity and Obedience

Griffin gets briefly into what “many historians see as the crucial change from the medieval to the modern world” as seen in the work of Pico della Mirandola, who held that “our very relation to God, and hence our human dignity, consists in our creative power”. This helped “the transition in human self-understanding [Frances Yates] from passive contemplation to active operation”, to be seen as “a religious act, not something contrary to the will of God”. Yet this insight “lost out to ideas rooted in the Reformation which were in turn based on the nominalistic-voluntaristic theologies of the preceding two centuries”, which gave God all the creativity and the world none. “The creative God is not present in the creatures, but is their external creator and controller. All of nature obeys God’s laws. For humans to be religious means for them to be obedient.” There will be more on this topic in a future chapter/essay.

“The formative thinkers of the modern worldview . . . portrayed natural entities in purely mechanistic, materialistic terms. As canonized in Newton’s law of inertia, natural entities were said to have no power of self-movement; they remain as they are unless moved by an outside efficient cause.” This early modern view was dualistic: “The human soul was said to be wholly unlike natural things”, having “a derivative form of creative power . . . delegated by God”.

This dualistic supernaturalism could support two types of human spirituality. On the one hand, believing that absolute laws for human behavior had been infallibly revealed by God . . . humans could assume that their role in life was, like nature, to obey the divinely imposed laws. On the other hand, focusing upon the absolute difference between themselves and other creatures, they could believe that their role was to exercise their creativity. (page 31)

That may sound good at first blush, but stay tuned.

II. Problems Within Early Modernity

Modernity is really not off to a good start: “This early modern worldview, with its uncreative nature, its dualism, and its omnipotent, external deity, led to many problems. The most well-known problems are theoretical.” One of the biggest and oldest was (1) the problem of evil, which “stressed God’s omnipotence and perfect goodness”, but it gets worse “when the power of the creator was accentuated and the inherent power of the creation so explicitly denied”, all this in the framework of a “natural religion”. If humans have no power to resist God’s will, “why do they sin? Or at least why does God allow their sin to cause such misery for other humans?” And then there is evil caused by natural events such as earthquakes.

Problem 2: If the Bible is the revelation of God, how come it has all the signs of human creativity? If humans have no power to resist God, why all these errors and contradictions?

Problem 3: The rise of an evolutionary perspective. Creation ex nihilo, sudden creation, didn’t fit with the idea of a universe that took billions of years to make. “An omnipotent creator would not have had to resort to such compromises.” So early modernity forced a choice between creation or evolution.

Problem 4: The mind-body problem. How do mind and body interact? Mind has creativity and experience; body does not. Only an omnipotent God can explain it, and early modernity is losing its omnipotent God.

Then there is a “serious practical conflict between two conflicting spiritualities”. If God is absolutely omnipotent, that supports a spirituality of obedience to this God and his “infallibly revealed absolute moral laws”, which “suppress human creative energies”. But “this theology implicitly supports a spirituality of creativity, leading to an image of God “defined in terms of our capacity to dominate the rest of the world”. Oops! Although this early modern worldview did not originate this conflict of spiritualities, it definitely made it worse. Griffin states : “These points are illustrated by most fundamentalist Christians in the United States, who carry on the early modern worldview. (A person in our time with Isaac Newton’s beliefs would be called a fundamentalist.)” But late modernity gets worse still!

III. Problems Within Late Modernity

Griffin plans to get into this in more detail in later chapters/essays. “The early modern worldview, with its dualism and supernaturalistic theism, evolved into the late modern worldview, which is materialistic and atheistic. This view is also plagued with many conflicts between theory and fact.” It’s all “piled Ossa on Pelion”, as New Thought author Henry Wood (1834-1909) liked to say. “[L]ate modernity like early modernity, conveys an ambivalent message about spirituality.” For now, let’s just tiptoe on past.

IV. Rethinking the Nature of the Physical

The conflicts within the early and late modern worldviews summarized above all result from the assumption that the fundamental units of the physical world are devoid of creativity. That assumption also is central to the conflicts between the spiritualities of obedience and creativity. A way beyond these conflicts might be found if the physical world were thought to have the inherent power to act that was denied it by early modernity for mainly theological and sociological reasons. This is the postmodern position to be explored in the remainder of this chapter. (page 34)

We have finally arrived at the fountainhead of process thought. I find it refreshing to have gone over this slice of the history of how we got here in terms of the evolution of ideas. “The primary stimulus for this rethinking the nature of ‘physical things’ has come from physics and biology, especially those developments associated with Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, and Charles Darwin.” All this is news to me as a redheaded harpsichordist.

Most objects we can see and touch appear passive. This leads to dualism, primitive animism, and materialism, as widespread views of how things are. Modern molecular or atomic theory adds a fourth view, possibly called postmodern animism. What if the principal difference between a rock and a squirrel is that “a squirrel has a dominant self-moving entity, a soul, which can coordinate the motions of its bodily members, while the rock does not, so that the movements of its millions of constituents simply cancel each other”? Leibniz came up with this idea, but did not develop it, instead keeping all the creative power with God. But Einstein’s famous formula “suggests that there may be no fundamental difference between matter and energy—that matter is “frozen energy”. This has been verified by empirical study. “Matter is being transformed into energy all the time, and energy into matter.” This really shakes up traditional thought. Now we can regard creative activity itself as the “material cause” of things. “The world could be seen as radically self-creative, with the evolutionary process bringing forth higher and higher forms of creative beings.” Griffin amplifies this a bit with references to the work of Heisenberg, Bohr, and Darwin; although Darwin still held that matter is passive and there is no freedom in nature. Darwin rejected Lamarck’s idea of creative, spontaneous matter. So we inch two steps forward and one back.

V. Creativity and Divinity: Bergson and Berdyaev

Henri Bergson is enormously important in the transition to the postmodern view:

He spoke of evolution as “creative,” to mean bringing forth something new, something that was not already implicit in the past. At first he was dualisitic, limiting creativity to living things. But he later overcame this dualism, viewing even matter as creative. The traditional association of deity and creativity was retained. But now, rather than seeing God as creative, creativity was regarded as divine. Creativity was not in a being transcendent to nature, but was the very stuff of nature itself. (page 37)

Bergson influenced Nicolas Berdyaev, “who put creativity at the heart of his thought and used it to reinterpret Christian theology. Berdyaev completely rejected the attribution of omnipotence to God and the notion of creation out of nothing. Rather, he saw ‘uncaused freedom’ as the fundamental reality out of which the world is formed.” But his theology of creativity is still limited.

Bergson was also a heavy influence on Alfred North Whitehead. He and his colleague Charles Hartshorne “[do] not restrict creativity to human life but [make] it, as did Bergson, the central category for interpreting reality as a whole”. But Whitehead and Hartshorne “do not simply equate God with creativity but regard creativity as the ultimate reality which is embodied by both God and all worldly individuals.” Griffin takes it on from here.

VI. Whitehead and the Ultimacy of Creativity

For Whitehead, creativity is the ultimate reality of which all things are instances. This means that the basic things or entities are events, spatiotemporal processes of becoming. Whitehead’s view not only generalized the Einsteinian notion of the convertibility of matter and energy, but also employed another basic Einsteinian notion, which is that space and time are inseparable. One cannot speak of space and time as separate, but only of space-time, or time-space. Whitehead’s way of explaining this idea is that the things comprising the world are not essentially nontemporal things that just happen to be in time. They are essentially spatio-temporal events. They take—or make—time, as well as space, to occur. . . . No actual things simply endure passively. Each real thing is a spatio-temporal happening.
These actual occasions or events can be extremely brief, with . . . billions within a second. Things that endure, such as electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, and minds, are each comprised of a series of brief events.
Moments in the life-history of an electron, a cell, and a human being obviously differ immensely in terms of the forms they embody. But they all have one thing in common; each is an instance of creativity. Creativity is in this sense the ultimate reality, that which all actualities embody. All actual entities are thereby creative events. (page 39)

And you may need to read that series of occasions of experience more than once in order to get it!

Griffin goes on to cover the two sides of the creativity of an event: its physical pole and its mental pole. It takes in parts of the past (physical pole) and combines them with the perfect possibilities held out to it by God (mental pole, which responds to ideality, not to physicality). Then that completed event goes on to influence the future to some degree. “Whitehead and Hartshorne have generalized the Einsteinian notion of energy, which itself is an abstraction. . . . Even to describe the ultimate reality as creativity is an abstraction. Creativity is always creative experience.” Don’t worry; Griffin will return to all this in more detail in another chapter/essay.

VII. Creative Experience and the God-World Relation

The idea that creativity is the ultimate reality also forms the basis for postmodern solutions to the problems that resulted in early modernity because of its portrayal of the God-world relation, and those that resulted in late modernity from its complete denial of a divine reality. These solutions all follow from a new understanding of the relation between creativity and divinity. (page 41)

Griffin goes on to describe how Whitehead’s thinking evolved from following Bergson closely to making some important distinctions. God is not the exception to metaphysical principles; he is their “‘chief exemplification’. Creativity is not God, but creativity is the ultimate reality, which God and the most trivial puff of existence in far-off space both exemplify.” Boiling this down a bit for now, “The essential point is that creativity does not belong to God any more than it does to the world. As Hartshorne put it, creativity must be embodied in both divine and nondivine instances of it.” Creation ex nihilo would then be self-contradictory. I was exposed to these ideas slowly and patiently by my household Philosopher, and the more I entertained them, the more congenial they became for me. “God is a creative influence on all events, but never the sole creator of any, because each is partially created by its past world and by itself.” The Philosopher liked to say that all creation is co-creation. I like the idea that we influence God to some extent. "Our high degree of freedom is a gift of God. But that the worldly creatures have some degree of freedom is not due to divine choice." Nor did God choose that higher creatures have more power for good or evil: “A world with more valuable creatures is therefore necessarily a more dangerous world.” So, Griffin points out “the existence of chaos and evil is no surprise. . . . The surprise is the existence of order and goodness.” There will be more on this later. And the constructive postmodern position allows for “inspiration” that is neither infallible nor to be completely denied. This idea (all beings embody inherent creativity) would have spared us “the negative, shocking role that [biblical criticism] has played in modern religion”. So we have gotten creativity properly back into the picture.

VIII. A Spirituality and Ethic of Experiential Creativity

Griffin wraps up this essay with a long dissertation on how different modern spirituality would have been if it had been “based upon the universality of creative experience instead of its denial”. This would have changed our perception of the Church. The postmodern resolution of the old modern conflict between creativity and obedience in favor of creativity does not mean that obedience “was not based upon a true intuition. As religious beings, we naturally want to be in harmony with the ultimate reality of the universe....”, meaning obedience. But “True obedience is therefore manifested in a life of maximal creativity”.

“The divine ‘no’ is directed only against those expressions that are really destructive rather than creative....” This would also affect our work ethic and our achievement values. Creative values, once in place, “are more important than an increase in the conditions for further receptive values”. This would change things right down to our national foreign aid values! Creative experience ethics would also lead to an ecological ethic. (Since 1989, we are also beginning to see hints of this arising! Vested interests are learning the hard way that some of the “old” approaches updated stop the damage to the planet and are more financially beneficial.) We can also move away from competitive individualism: strangely, research has shown that cooperation works far more effectively than competition. (But I don’t imply that we are not to defend ourselves against those whose goals include doing us in!) We are all interconnected, not self-enclosed. “[W]e are in each moment receptive . . . to all the experiences in our immediate and even more remote past.” We also get past coercive power, ruthless capitalism, ruthless socialism, and into “a web of centers of creative experience”. Sounds like control theory, which is synonymous with systems theory, according to Norbert Wiener, who ought to know! “No individual can be controlled. Control is not an ideal. Power consists of receptive power, self-creative power, and the ability to influence other creatively (persuasive power). “If we are converted to a postmodern religion, we may have a postmodern world.”

Next week, on to “God in the postmodern world”.


November 15, 2016

God in the Postmodern World

Chapter/essay 4 in David Ray Griffin’s book God & Religion in the Postmodern World deals with yet another problem that the modern world could not solve, and then shows us how constructive postmodernism can handle it.

The widespread loss of belief in God in intellectual circles in the modern world has been due, in part, to a problem inherent in the traditional idea of God and, in part to problems inherent in the modern worldview. Although the rejection of the traditional idea of God has been a gain, the negative consequences of the complete loss of belief in God in any sense outweigh this gain. Attempts to render God and the modern worldview compatible have been unsuccessful. The emerging postmodern worldview allows for the recovery of belief in God while eliminating the fatal problem inherent in the traditional idea of God. These four theses are developed in the four sections of this essay. (page 51)

I. The Loss of Belief in God in the Modern World

Griffin begins with a couple of neat definitions:

Within Western civilization and within all cultures heavily shaped by Jewish, Islamic, and/or Christian thought, there is what can be called the generic idea of God. According to this . . . definition, the word God refers to a personal, purposive being, perfect in goodness and supreme in power, who created the world, acts providentially in it, is sometimes experienced by human beings, especially as the source of moral norms and religious experiences, is the ultimate ground of meaning and hope, and is thereby alone worthy of worship.
The modern world is defined in terms of the modern worldview, which is the worldview that arose in the seventeenth century through the thought of people such as Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, Boyle, and Newton, and was spread in the eighteenth century as the “Enlightenment.” Although it underwent a radical change in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from its first to its second phrase . . . it can nevertheless be considered a single trajectory. The modern world refers to the world of human thought and practice insofar as it has been dominated by the modern worldview. (page 52)

Modernism’s thinking has a formal commitment to freedom: “rejection of all beliefs that seemed to curtail human freedom or to be based on authority instead of experience and reason”. But it also accepts a view of the world “according to which the basic units of nature are understood in a purely mechanistic way, and a particular view of human experience, according to which the perception of the world beyond the self is limited to sense-perception”. Griffin calls these two ideas “the substantive assumptions of modernism”.

“The most powerful reason for rejecting the existence of God has been the problem of evil”, says Griffin, who has written at least two books on the subject. The difficulty is “the apparent contradiction between the alleged goodness and power of God . . . and the experienced fact of evil....” If God is omnipotent and good, why are there all these atrocities of humankind and of nature? Griffin adds that omnipotent usually implies that God has all the power except what he voluntarily gives to creatures, implying that God could withdraw or override that power whenever he felt like it. Also, the world was created ex nihilo, so there is no power “to defy or distort the divine purposes”. In other words,

God could unilaterally bring about any state of affairs as long as no self-contradiction was involved: God could not create a round square, but could have created a world free of disease, drought, and daytime television. This idea of God has led to the widespread conviction, in the second phase of modernity, that the existence of God is contradicted by the world’s evils. (page 53)

Premodern thinkers accepted omnipotent goodness, but moderns “were committed to testing all beliefs against experience and reason. Before that tribunal, the God of the tradition appeared to be guilty of nonexistence”. The early modern thinkers had been “part of an Augustinian-voluntaristic tradition which stressed the absolute omnipotence of God far more than had typical medieval theologians . . . .” They denied that the world “had any inherent power with which to deviate from the divine will. This denial made the clash between the dogma of divine goodness and the experienced fact of worldly evil all the more apparent.” Then too, moderns felt that to believe in God was “to thwart the drive to full human emancipation from the various types of oppression”. So there was a clash between the desire for intellectual freedom of inquiry and the Church’s authoritarian approach, accepting the authority of “the Church and/or the Bible as an infallible, God-given source of truth. . . . Much modern polemic against God has been motivated by the desire to undermine this theological authoritarianism.”

Griffin continues: “The modern worldview simply has no natural place in it for God.” It is materialistic, seeing the mind as simply a function of the brain. Ironically, “it was initiated by thinkers who wanted to forestall materialism and to protect a particular type of divine action”. So, as I mentioned a while back, they kicked God upstairs for his own good. This omnipotent God needed their protection? But more was going on than made it into the textbooks when I was in school:

This [mechanistic] account of nature was directed not only against the Aristotelians . . . but primarily against a Hermetic, Neoplatonic, holistic, “magical” view of nature. In this holistic or magical view, the divine reality was immanent in nature, and those kinds of events traditionally called miracles (and now called parapsychological phenomena) were considered to be natural, if somewhat extraordinary, events.... That is, they were not miraculous interruptions of “laws of nature” requiring a supernatural explanation. (page 54)

The idea was that God was “totally transcendent” and nature “had no divine powers”, nor could there be any action at a distance. In the case of New Testament healings, the early modern thinkers “could infer a supernatural act of God”. They also wanted to affirm the need for a soul that was different in kind from the mortal body: i.e., immortal. So Mechanistic Modernity 1 “seemed to have soul-shaped and God-shaped holes of a particular kind in it”. But this attempt to save “particular views of the human soul and of divine action soon backfired” when it was transmuted into Modernity 2, “in which God and the soul were lost altogether”. As we have seen, dualism led to an insoluble mind-body problem: how could the two interact? By the twentieth century, “the dominant worldview of modernity simply ha[d] no God-shaped hole. Also, it denies the possibility of an experience of God, since it holds that “all perceptual experience of the world must come through one’s (material) sensory organs”. Modernity 1 with its dualism still “provided an analogical basis for affirming a direct experience of God”, but its days were numbered as materialism gained an ever-tightening hold.

II. Negative Consequences of the Loss of Belief in God

Loss of belief in God never has ended well. For a while, atheism was considered a good thing, but later “Nietzsche’s prophecy was correct: a world that has lost God altogether is worse than the world that believed in the God despised by Nietzsche and the rest of late modernity”. Norms and values become relative; nothing is any better than anything else. Nihilism results, because God had been “the guarantor of ...immortal existence”. Materialism results because “the basic religious drive, which is to live in harmony with the ultimate reality or power of the universe, remains. Atheistic materialism simply means the replacement of one religious ultimate with another”, so we go from “theoretical materialism to materialism as a religious way of life”, in turn leading to "insatiable desire to control and possess more and more material things. . . . This ethic of unrestrained competition for the control of material resources describes much of the behavior of modern individuals, corporations, and nations. Militarism is not far behind. Finally, there is neotribalism, us vs. them thinking, typified by Nazism and Stalinism. So, “what is the philosopher or theologian to do?”

III. Modern Attempts to Reaffirm the Reality of God

These boil down to two major strategies for “saving” God: redefinition and insulation. Redefinition consists of “using the term God to apply to something else”. Oh, please! This fools nearly nobody, except maybe pantheistic New Thoughters. Take all that is, tie a bow around it, and call it God. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures generally resist pantheism: “[it] relinquishes certain ideas generally considered essential ... in these cultures. The main problem with pantheism is its implication that no distinction can be made between what is and what ought to be. This notion, taken seriously, would undercut the ethical life altogether.“ Griffin adds, “These and other examples which could be given suggest that God must be redefined beyond recognition to be made compatible with the modern worldview.”

Other philosophers and theologians try to have their cake and eat it too by insulating God and the modern world from each other. “The strategy of insulation declares science and religion to be two mutually autonomous spheres of discourse. Concepts in one sphere need not be modified in the light of those in the other. Belief in the existence of God is thereby intended to be insulated from the corrosive acids of modernity.” Immanuel Kant, Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, and Ludwig Wittgenstein came up with convoluted approaches to this. Griffin summarizes:

However, the human mind finally demands a unified, synoptic vision. It is now widely agreed that the attempt to protect belief in God by insulating it from the worldview associated with modern science does not work. As long as that worldview is accepted, there is pressure to redefine God beyond recognition, or to cease talking of God altogether. In either case, no basis is provided for resisting the relativistic, nihilistic, and materialistic implications of the modern worldview.
Modern theologians and philosophers of religion have failed with their central project, reconciling God and the modern worldview. But they cannot be faulted for this failure, because the task was impossible. The modern worldview simply is not compatible with an intelligible idea of God. (page 61)

Aren’t you glad that modernity is dead, rather than God?

IV. A Postmodern Worldview and the Recovery of Belief

Recovering belief in God, while retaining modernity’s formal commitment to freedom, experience, and reason, is possible today only on the basis of a postmodern worldview that simultaneously overcomes modernity’s substantive assumptions about nature and experience and traditional theism’s assumption about divine power.
Given the incompatibility of God and modernity, the only way to speak intelligibly of God is to challenge the modern worldview. (page 61)

Some would like to go back to a premodern view, but that would lose us “modernity’s commitment to freedom, experience and reason”. So that we can retain this commitment, “the challenge must be based on a postmodern worldview”.

Griffin says it’s not enough just to reject the substantive assumptions of modernity, “because the modern loss of belief was due in part to a problem inherent in the traditional idea of God itself. That idea of divine power put belief in God in opposition to the modern commitment to social and intellectual freedom.” To have a viable theistic postmodernity, we also have to “challenge the idea of divine power traditionally associated with the generic idea of God”: the whole “omnipotence” bit. Traditional theism is hence impossible, so our constructive postmodern viewpoint “contains a fourfold critique of the substantive assumptions of modernity, involving pragmatic, philosophical, historical, and scientific arguments” plus “a basis for affirming a modified version of the generic idea of God”. A walk in the park!

1. The pragmatic argument does in “the relativistic and nihilistic consequences of the modern worldview”. We as human beings nurtured by and part of this world, cannot live in such terms, so the presumption is that it is not true.

2. The philosophical argument says that the fundamental units of the world, its “elementary particles”, like the old notion of matter, are “devoid of a ‘within’, having no perception, no experience of any sort, no purpose, no self-determination, no inner activity of any sort”. To start there, one must be a dualist or a “full-fledged materialist”. The dualists are stuck with the “impossible task . . . of explaining the way mind and body could interact”. The materialists eliminate the dualism to avoid this problem, holding that all is matter. “The materialists were claiming to be empiricists while denying the reality of that portion of the world which is given most immediately to our conscious experience, namely, our conscious experience itself!. Even worse, they were implicitly affirming the validity of their own conscious experiences and reasoning processes that led them to affirm materialism, while the content of their affirmations denied that conscious experiences and reasoning have any reality. Griffin comments, “This mutual annihilation of dualism and materialism provides a reductio ad absurdum of their common presupposition, the mechanistic view of nature, according to which its elementary units are insentient bits of matter.” Cute. What a bunch of looney tunes!

3. The historical argument attacks the assumption that

“the rise of modern science” both historically presupposed the mechanistic view of nature and provided empirical evidence for it. But recent studies have shown . . . that the advances associated with the “rise of modern science” occurred within the context of a holistic, Neoplatonic, somewhat Hermetic worldview, which was decidedly nonmechanistic, and that the mechanistic worldview was later accepted more for theological and sociological than for empirical or scientific reasons. The historical evidence therefore suggests that no logical or necessary connection exists between science as such and the modern, mechanistic view of nature. (page 63)

So there is a flag down on that play.

4. The scientific argument covers “several developments within the natural sciences themselves that provide empirical evidence against the mechanistic view of nature with its idea of foundational matter”. Physicists have had to deal with the equation of mass and energy, as well as the evidence for influence at a distance between “so-called elementary particles”. Biologists wrestle with “the evidence for memory and decision in bacteria” and “‘morphic causation’ at a distance that cannot be understood in terms of ordinary physical fields”. So, notes Griffin, “the modern worldview, which was supposedly based upon the ‘hard’ sciences, is not even adequate for interpreting these sciences”. Move down; clean cup!

But those four are just “the negative aspect of the emerging postmodern worldview”, which

“fully accepts the achievements of modern science and modernism’s commitment to freedom, experience, and reason. What it challenges is the mechanistic interpretation of nature and the sensationist epistemology, which constituted the substantive assumptions of modernism.” [Whitehead found that he could not account for any novelty without postulating the existence of God.] “By providing novel possibilities, God allows the present to transcend the past.” Jettisoning the “insentient bits of matter” in favor of receptive events, it is “natural again to think of God, the cosmic mind or soul, as immanently influential throughout its body [the universe]”. So, “the postmodern worldview has a God-shaped hole in it”.

The postmodern view sees sensory perception as “a sophisticated, derivative, lately evolved form of perception, not the basic form”. The “more fundamental form” of perception is nonsensory. “Although God is not the kind of being who can be perceived through our sensory apparatus, we are . . . apprehending God in a nonsensory way all the time”. This is how we derive our “moral, aesthetic, and logical ideals”, not through “internalization of the norms of our society”. Thank heaven! ;-)

Griffin concludes:

The emerging postmodern worldview allows for the recovery of belief in God on the basis of experience and reason. The God thus recovered is similar to the traditional God, except for a modification of that feature of the traditional view most responsible for the rise of modern atheism, that is, the doctrine of divine power. . . . [B]y having a God-shaped hole, it makes belief in God again natural. (page 67)

We have a common divine source, we live in a common divine reality, and we have a common divine goal. “The divine reality of the universe dwells in us, and we in it, and our lives have immortal significance in it.”

To be continued.


November 22, 2016

Evolution and Postmodern Theism

Griffin begins this essay/chapter 5 by reminding us, “The issue of the compatibility of God and evolution is second to none in importance today.” Our religion “centers around the desire to be in harmony with the ultimate power of the universe”, and in most traditions, that means belief in God as creator, the ultimate power of the universe. But

the idea that our world has come about through an evolutionary process is as well established as such a theory could be. Unless this evolutionary hypothesis is thought to be compatible with theism, the conviction that the supreme power of the universe is a personal, purposive, just and loving power will fade. The religious drive of people will lead them to bring their lives into harmony with a different kind of power. (page 69)

Sadly, the notion that God and evolution are incompatible is widespread, if the meaning of “God” includes “creator of the universe”. This conviction leads creationists to deny evolution and evolutionists to deny God. We have already seen that liberal theologians in effect, perhaps with a bit of tap-dancing, deny the idea of God as creator. To see God and evolution as compatible “requires a theistic evolutionism, which holds that the direction of the evolutionary process is rooted in a cosmic purposive agent”. But Darwinism “excludes theistic influence in principle”. According to Stephen Toulmin, “What Science has put asunder let no mere Theologian seek to join together again!”

Reuniting theology and biology into a newer theistic evolutionism faces four major obstacles:

  1. “The traditional, supernaturalistic idea of God is incompatible with the facts and methods of science in general and of evolutionary theory in particular.”
  2. “[T]he modern worldview, which lies behind modern science in general and evolutionary theory in particular, is incompatible with any (not just the supernaturalistic) idea of divine influence in the world.”
  3. “[M]odern science in general is incompatible with any view of divine influence.”
  4. “[M]odern (Darwinian) evolutionary theory in particular is hostile to any idea of divine influence in the evolutionary process. Accordingly, a credible theistic evolutionism requires revised views of God, the world, science, and evolution.”

Griffin points out that these issues are “closely interrelated”. Modern ideals are largely functions of the modern worldview. “The emergence of a new worldview will therefore bring with it new ideals of science and evolutionary theory. Also, the ideas of God and the world are closely intertwined: the modern worldview is largely if indirectly derivative from the supernaturalistic idea of God.” So for “a new concept of worldly entities”, we need a new understanding of God, which will lead to a new conception of the world.

This essay is in two parts. The first discusses “the fourfold incompatibility of theism and evolution in modern thought”, and the second show how “a postmodern worldview makes theistic evolutionism possible”.

So the folks in the pews are just going to have to get their brains all sweaty or risk losing what they prize most in this life.

I. The Incompatibility of Theism and Evolution in Modern Thought

The Incompatibility of Evolution and Supernaturalistic Theism

We have already covered much of this in other essays. Stage 1 modernity grew out of the traditional, supernaturalistic view of God that holds that the relation of God and the world is not a natural one, but is “a wholly voluntary relation, established unilaterally by a divine decision”. Stage 1 modernity intensified this, giving us a purely mechanistic view of nature, with God wholly omnipotent and nature purely passive. Matter was “devoid of any sentience, experience, or subjectivity . . . to prevent any suggestion of divine immanence in matter”. A transcendent God affected matter “only by imposing laws and motion on it from without”. So we have “a strongly dualistic, anthropocentric view of the created world”. God intervenes only occasionally with a miracle. So, “supernaturalism is incompatible with the basic facts of the evolutionary picture”. Darwin tried to solve this problem with a deistic position that even he did not ultimately find satisfactory. A second contradiction between supernaturalism and evolution is still creation ex nihilo versus “descent with modification”: “Why would a God with supernatural omnipotence have chosen to create our world in this way?”

A third “tension between evolution and the supernaturalistic worldview of early modernity” concerns early modern dualism and anthropocentrism, which held that everything was created for human benefit. Darwin stressed the similarity between humans and other higher animals, which made it hard to see the rest of the world as created for “human utility”:

In summary: supernaturalistic theism is challenged by the evil, the evolutionary descent, the nondualism, and the nonanthropocentric implications of an evolutionary account of our world’s creation. . . . [T]hey certainly do not naturally fit together. (page 73)

The Incompatibility of Theism and the Modern Worldview

“[T]he modern worldview, in its present form, is incompatible with theism of any sort (not only with supernaturalistic theism) . . . . [S]upernaturalism and dualism have collapsed into atheism and materialism.” The world is collapsing into rubble around us. Reasons that supernaturalism turned into atheism include the problem of evil, which is in even greater contrast with God’s alleged goodness; the rejection of miracles and of the infallibility of the Bible; and “the deistic removal of God to a temporally first cause”, which left an easy jump to doing without God altogether. All this was happening while dualism was turning into materialism, since dualists were unable to explain interaction. “The fact that most biologists, philosophers, and even theologians in our century [1989] have been taught virtually to equate evolutionism itself with Darwinism has made it extremely difficult for theistic accounts of evolution to get a serious hearing.” So you—by reading my abbreviated account of it as condensed from Griffin—are very important to spreading a constructive postmodern worldview.

II. The Compatibility of God and Evolution in Postmodern Thought

Whew! We finally made it to compatibility!

Griffin paraphrases Neal Gillespie: “theistic evolution was never disproved; scientists and philosophers simply lost interest in it”. As we have just seen, previous worldviews “made ‘theistic evolution’ seem like ‘round square’”. To Griffin, “this postmodern movement can find its best philosophical guidance for rethinking the nature of the world, the divine, science, and evolution from the metaphysical cosmologies of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne”.

The Compatibility of Evolution with Postmodernity’s Naturalistic Theism

God need not be thought of as a supernatural being; theism need not be supernaturalism; naturalistic theism is not a contradiction in terms. Because this suggestion runs counter to such a widespread assumption on the part of theists and atheists alike, it is necessary to consider what we mean by the word God. (page 77)

Our civilization has a “generic idea of God”, consisting of at least seven essential features. Both naturalistic and supernaturalistic theism differ only in their interpretation of the first, which we have seen. Here are the seven features:

God is

  1. “The supreme power”
  2. “The personal, purposive creator of our world who is
  3. Perfectly good,
  4. The source of moral norms,
  5. The ultimate guarantee for the meaningfulness of human life,
  6. The trustworthy ground for hope in the ultimate victory of good over evil, and
  7. Alone worthy of worship.”

The supernaturalistic view was of an omnipotent God who created the world ex nihilo and violates his own contract occasionally to create miracles.

Naturalistic theism believes by contrast that the relation between God and the world is a natural relation, given in the nature of things. A world, in the sense of a realm of finite existents (which might sometimes exist in a state of chaos), exists as necessarily as does God. Put otherwise, what exists eternally is God-and-a-world, God and a plurality of finite existents. God is not the external creator of a wholly contingent world; God is essentially the soul of the universe. Because the normal causal relationship between God and finite beings is a natural, necessary relationship, it cannot be interrupted at will by God any more than by the creatures. Any divine causality on worldly beings would therefore have to be as fully a natural part of the process as any other causation, Divine causation could not be supernatural. (page 77)

Therefore, “all events occur through the cocreativity of God and the creatures. Divine causality is therefore always persuasion; it can never be manipulation or unilateral fiat.” So, “neither the reality of evil, nor the fallibility of inspired writings, is evidence against the God of naturalistic theism, who only produces results with the cooperation of creatures”, nor is “a long, slow evolutionary process, filled with blind alleys and imperfections” a detraction: “Postmodern naturalistic theism in fact implies that God could have created a world only in this way” and with no way of preventing “unfortunate, even grotesque developments”.

The Superiority of the Postmodern Worldview and Its Compatibility with Naturalistic Theism

This one holds no surprises for us at this point! “No good reason can be found to continue holding the central [mechanistic, nonanimistic] tenet of the modern worldview. . . . This view was not originally accepted for primarily scientific (empirical) reasons and is not required by any subsequent discoveries.” Hurrah! “[T]he sensate empiricism necessitated by materialism leads to a ‘solipsism of the present moment’. . . .With all those weaknesses, the fact that this worldview has no room for divine existence and influence should not count heavily against the truth of every form of theism!” All these weaknesses can be overcome with postmodern animism.

The Compatibility of Postmodern Science with Naturalistic Theism

Postmodern science does not “have predictive determinism as an ideal”, “is not reductionistic”, “either is not scientistic, or else it expands the notion of ‘scientific explanation’ to include types of causal influence associated with religious beliefs that were excluded in principle by modern science”. Theistic influence “can be used for causal explanations” as long as it is naturalistic. Postmodern science seeks “ to understand to understand the various causal factors needed for a complete explanation of things”.

The Compatibility of Postmodern Evolutionary Theory with Naturalistic Theism

“A wide range of thinkers are rejecting the panselectionist dogma that natural selection is the only creative force in evolution.” We are seeing more and more rethinking of ideas, such as “not all heredity should be identified with generic inheritance”, and “there may be a type of influence of the more or less distant past upon the present that is not encoded in the genes”. This in turn allows “renewed discussion of the idea that the evolutionary process is somewhat directed and that this direction could reflect theistic influence” (spell that G-O-D).

Postmodern theism suggests that God, as the appetitive soul of the universe, lures the creatures to actualize values that will result in greater richness of experience. This greater richness of experience has a tendency to promote greater external attractiveness, which in general has a selectionist advantage. One writer has called this principle the ‘survival of the fanciest’. (page 80)

Griffin outlines various ways that divine influence might work, then summarizes and concludes:

Whereas theistic evolution was impossible both for supernaturalists and for moderns, it is possible in our time, given the emergence of a postmodern worldview with its naturalistic theism, and of new developments in natural science in general and evolutionary theory in particular.
Whether theistic evolution supplants the current impasse between creationists and nontheistic evolutionists will depend upon whether a postmodern vision of the world and science becomes dominant, and whether naturalistic theists can convincingly show divine influence to be a necessary, illuminating feature of the evolutionary process. If these things occur, the postmodern civilization will be one in which people’s religious drive will lead them to bring their beliefs, attitudes, and actions into harmony with a supreme power that is personal, just, loving, and works by persuasion alone. (page 82)

To be continued.


November 29, 2016

Postmodern Animism and Life After Death

I hope your Thanksgiving was all that the heart could desire.

For many years, the Philosopher taught a course, Life After Death, at Curry College. This was about arguments for and against life after death, not about death and dying. During his last ten years of teaching it, I helped him by creating multiple-choice exams, so I have some familiarity with the literature from serious scholars of the subject. I also helped edit and expand Alan’s own More Than Mortal? Contrasting Concepts and Enigmatic Evidence about Life After Death. Ron Hughes has created a Kindle edition of it, available from Amazon, and I have a few self-published GBC bound print copies left if you write me and enclose $10.00 in U.S. funds available through an American bank. I will pay the postage.

To understand Griffin’s chapter/essay 6, you need to have some familiarity with the notion of animism. It is a metaphysical issue: how do the basic units that compose the universe have to be in order to be at all? Are they alive? Dead as a doornail? Made of green cheese? Since the ancient Greeks (all but Heraclitus) won that fight by saying that the basic units were indivisible atoms with no life at all, one of the main worldviews has been antianimistic: they have no life at all. Unfortunate and primitive, as we shall see:

In the modern world, it has been very difficult for intellectuals to believe in life after death. The modern worldview made life after death seem impossible, or at least extremely improbable; it made concern with the belief (except to refute it) seem suspect; and it discouraged attention to any positive evidence for the belief. The modern consensus has been that belief in life after death is metaphysically impossible, empirically groundless, and morally harmful. A [constructive] postmodern outlook no longer rules out the belief on a priori grounds, and does not consider all forms of the belief harmful; it thereby encourages people to look at the available evidence for the belief open-mindedly, evidence which turns out to be convincing to many. These are the theses of this essay. (page 83)
1. (I am partially paraphrasing these) The modern worldview, which is an antianimistic worldview, ruling out the possibility of life after death and of any evidence for it.
2. Aspects of a postmodern animism most germane to rethinking belief in life after death.
3. Possibility for life after death seen from the metaphysics of postmodern animism and the indirect empirical evidence provided by parapsychology.
4. Direct empirical evidence of life after death.
5. Moral objections to belief in life after death.

I. Modern Antianimism and the A priori Rejection of Life After Death

Surprisingly, the modern worldview emerging in the seventeenth century “was originally based more upon theological and ecclesiastical than empirical considerations. Originally known as the “new mechanical philosophy”, it was antianimistic: “It stood in opposition not only to Aristotelian animism . . . but even more emphatically to a wild mixture of Hermetic, Cabalistic and Neoplatonic ‘magical’ Renaissance philosophies, some of which were strongly animistic.” Griffin has already discussed this at some length: they kicked God upstairs to protect him from these other influences:

The Renaissance animisms could also lead to atheism or, what was generally considered the same thing, pantheism. . . . In sum, the mechanistic view of nature was adopted by the first philosophers of modernity for primarily theological reasons (which were closely related to sociological ones) and was part of a dualistic view of the creation and a supernaturalistic view of reality as a whole. . . . This strategy backfired. (pages 85-86)

As we have already seen, it created the insolvable problem of interaction and couldn’t solve the problem of evil. “As the supernaturalistic God died, so did belief in miracles. . . . These three rejections—of the soul, God, and miracles—were mutually supportive. [T]he main point of this story is that every possible basis for believing in life after death was removed.” The worldview that thus evolved in the second phase of modernity “made life after death impossible. This second phase of the modern worldview is still the reigning worldview in most intellectual circles.”

II. The Emergence of a Postmodern Worldview

Once past the idea of a supernaturalistic creation, one can again entertain the idea “that the universe must be self-organizing and therefore composed on self-moving parts. Similarly, once past dualism, and accepting human experience as fully natural, “it begins to seem probable that something analogous to our experience and self-movement is a feature of every level of nature. Finally, twentieth-century developments in [physics and biology] support a new animism.” Griffin of course supports the views of Whitehead and Hartshorne:

Their viewpoint differs from typical premodern animisms in three ways. First, the power of perception and self-movement is not attributed to things such as rocks, lakes and suns. A distinction is made between individuals and aggregates of individuals. Only true individuals are self-moving, perceiving things. Most visible things therefore are not animate (although their constituents are). The only visible animate things (aside from the universe as a whole) would probably be animals, which as their name implies, have an anima which gives the organism as a whole the power of perception and self-movement. (page 88)

Other differences from the premodern animism are the idea that “to have experience is not necessarily to have conscious experience, let alone self-consciousness. Most of the experiences in the universe are unconscious.” The events composing, say, a steel beam are extremely limited and almost totally determined by the past. Also, rather than enduring souls, postmodern animism “takes the basic units to be momentary experiences”, something like the Buddhist notion of one candle lighting another. They have been compared to frames of a movie.

Griffin gives us three more features of postmodern animism:

1. The human mind or soul “is numerically distinct from the brain but not ontologically different from the cells making up the brain”, so there can be nondualistic interaction. The difference is in number, not in kind.
2. Sensory perception is second to nonsensory perception as the basic form of perception.
3. “[V]arious animas or souls have various degrees of power. . . . An amoeba has more power than an atom, a canine soul more power than an amoeba, and a human soul more than a canine.”

The postmodern worldview also has a new, naturalistic theism, or panentheism. It holds, as did some of the mystics, that God is the soul of the universe:

[T]he fundamental relations between God and the world are natural features of reality, belonging to the very nature of things, not arbitrary features, based on divine volition. . . . All creative power is not thought to belong to God alone. Creativity . . . belongs equally to God and to a realm of finite beings. God influences all finite events, but totally determines none of them. . . . (page 90)

Even without a supernaturalistic God, we still need a cosmic source of order, “a Noncoercive Cosmic Power that influences us in terms of the claims of truth, beauty, and goodness”.

III. The Possibility of Life After Death: Postmodern Metaphysics and Indirect Empirical Evidence

Griffin has just showed us that overcoming the modern world worldview by adopting postmodern animism makes life after death metaphysically possible. But metaphysicians are quite capable of defending the possibility of views that they themselves don’t adopt! So we go further: “The idea that it might be really possible is supported by some indirect empirical evidence provided by parapsychology. Because of its difference from modern materialism and dualism, postmodern animism allows life after death to be affirmed on a naturalistic basis.” Griffin then rattles past all the points that he has just been making in demolishing the modern worldview, ending with nonsensory perception, which is known as extrasensory, “exceptional not because it involves nonsensory perception (which is ongoing), but because a person has become consciously aware of things that remain at the unconscious level most of the time.” He adds, “The evidence from parapsychology supports this viewpoint.”

And Griffin knows a thing or two about serious scientific scholarly study of parapsychology: see Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (1997), a later volume in his SUNY series. In it, he takes exception to the famous remark of William James that it takes only one white crow to prove that not all crows are black. “One swallow does not a summer make”, he retorts; when it comes to extrasensory perception, we need “repeatable white crows”.

But returning to the present volume, we have more than a century’s worth of evidence for the reality of extrasensory perception”, mainly telepathy and clairvoyance. He supplies a “philosophical deduction from the animistic viewpoint”, which “is empirically supported by psychosomatic and parapsychological evidence”. It will take us too far afield to go over this in detail here at the moment. We have “evidence for out-of-body experiences”, showing “the capacity of the soul to perceive without the body’s mediation, and its capacity to exist without the body . . . in a sense the same”. Griffin has already explained that human souls “have the unique power to survive apart from the body”, which “does not imply dualism” because “the human soul is only different in degree, not in kind, from the souls of other animals”. That difference is enough to give us “a capacity for symbolic language” that “virtually amounts to a difference in kind”. But because there is no ontological dualism, this idea of life after death doesn’t necessitate “any supernatural act of God”.

Griffin also points out that the terms immortality and resurrection do not have to be in opposition. As we have already seen, such problems arise mainly form the difficulties associated with modernism. Though they are “misleading”, both terms “connote an essential aspect of a postmodern belief in life after death within a naturalistic framework”.

IV. Direct Evidence for Life After Death

Griffin admits, “For those who will examine it with the presupposition that it might be genuine, impressive evidence exists for human survival of bodily death. This topic, which needs a book-length treatment in itself, can only be touched on here with irresponsible brevity.” But he soldiers on, neither brief nor irresponsible.

Near-death experiences, which are abundant with advances in medicine, have an out-of-body feature and “often involve encounters with a ‘welcoming committee, which sometimes includes people of whose death the person did not previously know”. Further, “efforts to explain near-death experiences away pharmacologically or as an evolutionary adaptation have been unsuccessful.” Griffin continues, “Cross-correspondences in mediumship material have provided some of the evidence most difficult to explain away”, most famously, “purportedly originating from the spirits of men who had been leading members of the Society for Psychical Research in turn-of-the-century England”. In this case,

several people were independently receiving material through automatic writing. None of them knew that the others were receiving material during the same period, yet the various messages only made sense after they were combined. The episode appears prima facie to have been the result of a plan formulated by clever souls who knew the ways in which most mediumistic phenomena could be explained away. (page 98)

Griffin concludes this section by mentioning Ian Stevenson, who “has recently produced impeccable and extensive studies, based on evidence from a wide variety of cultures, which have provided impressive, although not undeniable, evidence for reincarnation”. Attempts to explain this data away are anything but parsimonious, a highly prized concept in scientific research.

V. Responses to Moral Objections to Belief in Life After Death

The rest of the chapter/essay is devoted to this topic. I find it a bit odd that those who have rejected belief in any sort of God other than the laws of science should object to belief in life after death on moral grounds, but hey, that’s just me. Griffin, the metaphysical martial artist, tackles these back-alley thugs with impunity:

Some readers may consider moral objections to belief in life after death irrelevant. “The issue should be resolved,” one might argue, ‘solely in terms of metaphysical possibility and empirical evidence. Whether we think the belief harmful or healthy is irrelevant. We have to believe many things that we wish were not true. Those who consider belief in life after death desirable should be ready to reject it if the weight of philosophical argument and empirical evidence counts against it, and those who dislike the belief should be ready to accept it if argument and evidence show it to be probable.” This position presents an austere ideal against which we should measure our practice. But it ignores the fact that most of us, most of the time, do not approximate this ideal. (pages 98-99)

Black belts in philosophy may accept this perspective with rejoicing, and for any such who however mistakenly have wandered into my audience, may your tribe increase; and do rush out and try to locate copies of Griffin’s works, any and all of them! You might also try to locate a soapbox. I spent 22 years in the lap of the Philosopher, who got his jollies from participating in such arguments. For the rest of us, I will cut to the chase as rapidly as I can see my way clear.

One question raised on moral grounds is the possible harmfulness of belief in life after death. Griffin calls it “large and complex”, contenting himself with listing “six reasons for considering the belief morally undesirable”. He then proceeds to do in these six thugs in order to clear the ground:

I argue that, although they constitute valid objections to one or more forms of belief in life after death, they would not apply to all forms, and in particular to a postmodern doctrine of continuing life. I also indicate that one could propose counterarguments—that is, that lack of belief in life after death altogether is harmful and that belief in life after death conceived in certain ways would be healthy. I attempt, however, neither a positive portrayal from a postmodern perspective of what life after death might be like nor a comprehensive defense of the healthiness of belief in its reality. The discussion is limited to a response to some moral objections that seem especially influential in modern times. (page 99)

Here are the six moral objections to belief in life after death that are candidates to be demolished in the back alley:

1. The belief entails horrible doctrines of retribution.

2. It gives corrupt institutions power over people’s consciences (and pocketbooks).

3. It is the opiate of the people, numbing them to social injustice here and now.

4. It prevents people from living life in the present to the fullest.

5. It produces complacency about the fate of the earth (think nuclear weapons and pollution).

6. It is idolatrous, encouraging us to think of ourselves instead of God, as the ultimate recipient of value.

And the objections to the objections:

1. Some hope to escape modernity by regressing to earlier forms of faith. No hiding place down there! The modern picture of life as meaningless is even more horrible. But we need to “rethink modernity’s assumption that we can live happily and healthily apart from any and all beliefs in life after death”. “God influences us by attracting us to better ideals” and “has not been holding back some awful coercive power that could be suddenly imposed upon us.”

2. The XVII century dualism “was to bolster belief in immortality against those who were denying it to undermine the Church’s authority”. Today’s “fundamental evangelists” aren’t much better. “The abuse of an idea, of course—we know in our rational moments—does not disprove its truth”. The old guys objected to a “divine power understood naturalistically” because it would be “equally accessibly to all people”. Yes, we object to centralized control, but “the tyranny exercised over people by the modern secular state has been a much greater threat to human life than the control exercised by religious organizations”. So let’s reexamine the belief.

3. “The religious belief in immortality is an ideological opiate for both classes. It prevents the poor from becoming sufficiently motivated to improve their own lot while it salves the conscience of the ruling class, enabling them to believe that things are as they ought to be.”

4. Within naturalistic theism, “God cannot unilaterally bring about a state of justice, peace, and happiness.” Let’s get on with “creative transformation”! There is no justification for “the reign of God”, if ushered in by God alone, not to have been long ago, so why not start today?

5. This topic is hotter than ever today than in 1989. We need “a new conception of a continuing journey to replace the hitherto dominant image”. Also, “the modern objections to premodern conceptions of life after death would not necessarily apply to a postmodern conception”, and “the modern assumption . . . that people can live perfectly healthy lives without any belief in life after death, needs to be reconsidered.”

6. The first five objections “are compatible with atheism, and are often made in the name of it”, but “this sixth objection is made in the name of theism”, or, by Charles Hartshorne, in the name of “the naturalistic theism, or panentheism, on which postmodern theology is based”. Hartshorne introduces “objective immortality”, which allows for life after death for at least an appropriate length of time, after which we, of our own free will, would have had enough life and would choose to cease to exist, like drops of water being reabsorbed into the ocean. But God lovingly preserves all occasions of experience, whether we as souls are still around “in heaven” or not. “[F]ar from undermining a theist’s devotion for God, [life after death in a postmodern framework] should actually strengthen it.” As Muriel Humphrey once remarked to her long-winded politician husband, “Hubert, you don’t have to be eternal to be immortal”.

Griffin summarizes:

“The modern denial of life after death has been based less on evidence, or the lack thereof, than on the a priori convictions that it is impossible and that belief in it is harmful. . . . Postmodern animism changes everything. Life after death is conceivable apart from supernaturalism.” It is also conceivable apart from the other straw men that Griffin has demolished. I hope my summary whets your appetite to explore the whole topic further.

To be continued.


December 6, 2016

Imperialism, Nuclearism, and Postmodern Theism

This essay #8 is the final chapter in David Ray Griffin’s book, God, Religion, and the Postmodern World. Written in 1989, even Griffin himself might view it somewhat differently today, but his basic points are historically accurate and still valuable. Since this complex essay in many areas duplicates what he has already covered, I am not going to go as deeply into it as I have on some in this series.

Basically, Griffin is continuing to make the case that constructive postmodern theology is the great hope of the world because it successfully reunites science and religion. He begins, “It is increasingly recognized that an adequate theology requires both . . . the affirmation of truths intended to have universal validity, and a liberating engagement with concrete forms of evil.”

Griffin has already shown us how the supernaturalistic theology of the early modern period could not hold water and led to the atheistic-materialistic worldview of the late modern period. Both have led to “a framework . . . conducive to imperialism, nuclearism, and economic exploitation”.

Whereas premodern and early modern Western thought assumed that theism had to be supernaturalistic, late modern thought has assumed that naturalism must be atheistic. Postmodern theology, especially as inspired by the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, presents a third option, naturalistic theism, which challenges the common premise of the previous views—that the supreme power of the universe, be it conceived as Omnipotent Lord or Omnipotent Matter, works coercively. Most of the essays in this book have focused primarily on the contrast of the postmodern worldview with the late modern worldview of materialistic atheism. The present essay . . . focuses primarily on the contrast with the supernaturalistic theism of medievalism, which early modernity intensified. (page 129)

Griffin first discusses “this idea of God and its contribution to U.S. imperialism”. He then describes “postmodern theology’s theism (or panentheism), which, with its understanding of God’s power and love, overcomes the problematic features of supernaturalistic theism and which, if widely accepted, would contribute to different ways of being and relating”.

Since Griffin has already covered supernaturalism in a fair amount of detail, I propose to give it short shrift here, adding only a couple of points, and instead giving our attention to the postmodern theism of Whitehead and Hartshorne.

By supernaturalistic theism I mean the idea that God essentially exists independently of this and any world, and that a realm of finite beings exists only through a decision of the divine will. Supernaturalism is hence extreme voluntarism, the view that the nature of God’s relation to the world, including the fact that there is any relation at all, is entirely voluntary.
This voluntaristic supernaturalism has to some extent characterized Christian theology from the beginning, but it has been more dominant in the modern world, especially in Calvinistic countries, such as the United States. (page 129)

We have already seen how this approach kicked God upstairs “to protect and magnify the divine freedom”. Griffin traces it from Augustine through Aquinas, into Protestant countries by means of such as Isaac Newton, and influencing science in Roman Catholicism through such as Descartes and Pascal. “At the same time, this doctrine of God’s monopolistic omnipotence paradoxically increased the role of Satan, as God’s mortal enemy.” This opens another can of worms: how does God battle evil, through persuasion or coercion?

If God has all the power, and can “exert unilateral, controlling power over the creatures”, and this is a free act of God, “nothing prevents God’s hating or being indifferent to the creatures”. God has allowed this cosmic power of evil, but the Bible tells us, “in the end God will unleash the full destructive capacity of the divine omnipotence to rid the world of evil”. Griffin theorizes that “this supernaturalistic idea of God has contributed to modern imperialism in general and to nuclearism in particular”. He may be right, but at this point in history, the picture has changed quite a bit. There is the new, even worse atheistic materialism on the scene, and we go out of the frying pan into the fire:

Much atheism has resulted from the fact that the modern mind has found the dominant idea of God incredible. I have discussed in previous chapters the ways in which theism was undermined by the problem of evil, by historical-critical study of the Bible, and by evidence for evolution because the idea of divine omnipotence led to unrealistic expectations. The conflict between omnipotence and evolution is most relevant to the present topic. The rejection of the doctrine of God’s special creation of each species out of nothing led to a deistic or totally atheistic interpretation of evolution in terms of the “survival of the fittest” and the “elimination of the unfit” through competition and pure power relations. . . .
In sum, while the supernaturalistic idea of God has directly supported imperialism, militarism, and nuclearism by portraying the universe as ruled by coercive power, the offensiveness and incredibility of this idea of God led to an atheistic version of the same belief. Whether they be atheists or theists, therefore, modern human beings are led by the dynamic of the imitatio dei to want to control the world through the use of coercive power. Of course, it can be maintained that this is a natural desire, which would exist even without a supporting worldview. To whatever extent that is true, it remains the case that modern religion, both in its theistic and atheistic forms, reinforces that desire rather than mitigating it. (pages 137-138)

Postmodern Theology’s Naturalistic Theism

Postmodern theology rejects the extreme voluntarism of supernaturalistic theism and the atheistic naturalism of modernity, replacing both with a naturalistic form of theism. This naturalistic theism is not a disguised rejection of theism: it is as distinguishable from atheistic naturalism as from theistic supernaturalism. God is understood as a personal being, distinct from the world, active in it, and responsive to it. Nor does the rejection of extreme voluntarism mean that the notions of purpose and freedom cannot be applied to God. What is rejected is rather the notion that the basic God-world relationship is itself an arbitrary feature of reality, determined by divine volition. In Whitehead’s words, “The relationships of God to the world should lie beyond the accidents of will.” Postmodern theology rejects with Whitehead the idea that the way God acts in the world (by persuasion), and the way God responds to the world (with compassion) are matters of divine volition. Rather, these relationships are “founded upon the necessities of the nature of God and the nature of the world.” (page 138)

Whitehead rejected the idea of creation ex nihilo, replacing it with a version of creation out of chaos. [That should sound somewhat familiar, at least; there’s plenty of chaos to go around.] Griffin quotes Whitehead’s suggestion that: “the creation of the world is the incoming of a type of order establishing a cosmic epoch. It is not the beginning of matter of fact, but the incoming of a certain type of social order.” Griffin then comments: “This alternative view is not an arbitrary preference on Whitehead’s part but is implied by his entire worldview. The actual units of the world are creative events.” In each of these creative events, “‘The many become one, and are increased by one.’” He then adds: “If the very nature of actuality involves the creative synthesis of a many into a unity, it does not make sense to talk about a time when there was not a multiplicity of beings, a time when God existed all alone.” Whitehead, says Griffin, “was nervous about referring to God as creator because ‘the phrase is apt to be misleading by its suggestion that the ultimate creativity of the universe is to be ascribed to God’s volition’”. God did create the world, “but God did not create creativity itself....”

So God’s relation to the world is natural rather than arbitrary. Griffin elaborates:

1. A world of some sort must exist. [I am partially paraphrasing here.] The existence of a world is, like God’s own existence, fully natural or necessary.
2. The way God acts in relation to the world is also natural, being part of the very nature of things. God’s action in the world is persuasive rather than coercive. [Skip the final coercive forces wielding the thunder.]
3. Contrary to the traditional theologians, who said God is impassible and does not “respond” to the world at all, God loves all creatures naturally. God could not hate, or be indifferent to, any creature. It belongs to the very nature of God to respond to each creature with sympathy, or compassion. The idea that God is necessarily good has not been the dominant view in departments of philosophy or in popular Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. [Surprise!] Postmodern theologians hold that God’s omniscience (perfect knowledge of the world) entails God’s perfect love for it, God’s perfect sympathy for all its creatures.

Doubling back a couple of pages (don’t ask; it’s Griffin, not me!), here are some important points:

Because the world’s creativity is inherent to it, God’s use of persuasion is not based on a voluntary self-limitation. God could not choose, from time to time, to intervene coercively here and there in the world.” This comes from the difference between naturalistic theism and “the voluntarism of supernaturalistic theism”. One of Whitehead’s most quoted statements is “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles. . . .He is their chief exemplification.” Naturalistic theism is more credible than supernaturalism because it is “fully compatible with the facts of evil, evolution, and biblical criticism, all of which constitute extreme difficulties for supernaturalism”. Again quoting Whitehead: “God’s role is not the combat of . . . destructive force with destructive force; . . . he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.” So which of these theisms “expresses Christian faith more authentically”?

The idea of God’s perfect love and sympathy in turn rests on “the Whiteheadian-Hartshornian view of perception”, which is direct “knowledge by acquaintance”. “The most fundamental type of perception is not sense-perception. Sense-perception presupposes a more fundamental relationship, which Whitehead called prehension.” We have covered this briefly before. Related to this: “If all creatures are within God, as Hartshorne’s panentheism holds, then divine omniscience would entail a ‘certain and absolute coincidence of other-interest and self-interest’”. One of the few points that my household Philosopher and I argued over was my insistence that to honor one’s own desires really fully and completely was to be automatically altruistic. After go-round #756, he finally agreed: “Well, when you put it that way, yes.”

Winding up this final chapter/essay, Griffin states that “divine omniscience does imply divine goodness, because God directly knows the world fully and thus naturally sympathizes with the feelings of all creatures. But this “impartial love does not imply that God is not unhappy with much that is going on in the world and does not prefer the actions of some people to those of others. It does not mean that God supports the aims of all indifferently. What this . . . implies is that God’s unhappiness with some people’s lives does not involve hate.” Alan liked to say that God sees farther than we do. Griffin concludes:

This view takes literally the New Testament suggestion that, in doing something to the (in the world’s eyes) “least of these,” we have done it unto the Divine One.
Given our human tendency to imitate deity as we most deeply conceive and imagine it, the widespread appropriation of postmodern theism at a deep level by our culture would do much to overcome our penchant for imperialism and nuclearism. (pages 144-145)

Ironically, more than a quarter of a century later, the picture has shifted, and not really for the better. But I hope this helps people realize that although the United States does have things to answer for, so do most other nations, and groups of people who believe that they have a right to hate others and destroy them in the name of their religion. Next week, I promise, we will start some Christmassy explorations to put us in the mood of the season. And I hope that at least some of you will be impelled to investigate process thought (constructive postmodern philosophy) further. Here endeth Griffin’s series of essays.


December 13, 2016

Because of Christmas

Looking around in the Philosopher’s library for a Christmas book to write about or find inspiration from, I came across this old friend: Because of Christmas: A Personal Portfolio of Yuletide Remembrances, by Marcus Bach, published by his Fellowship for Spiritual Understanding. The book is available used from Amazon (search it by title). Online biographies list conflicting dates of birth (1901/1906-1995). He was an ordained Protestant minister. From the book cover:

Marcus Bach, master essayist and one of the best qualified writers in the field of intercultural relations, is the author of . . . popular books . . . in the inspirational field [He was particularly fond of and an apologist for Unity].
For depth of insight and beauty of narrative style Because of Christmas will rank among the finest of his twenty-eight published titles [as of 1986]. . . . Recipient of four honorary degrees from American universities besides his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, Dr. Bach has received numerous awards for his literary achievements.
“After a lifelong sharing in Christmas observances around the world,” Bach says, “I asked myself, ‘What is the universal magic that touches people’s hearts and minds once a year and creates what we call the Christmas spirit?’ For history assured me that even before Bethlehem something in the human psyche felt an innate longing and loneliness to materialize a dream. But for research and travel I might never have asked the question. But for my Christmases at home I might never have found the answer.”

Here are a few bits and pieces from these stand-alone chapters:

Because of Christmas something wonderful happens to the world. Most of us have known this from childhood and have believed it ever since we saw our first string of colored lights or heard the sound of carols on a wintry night. Something told us that God is real and life is good.
Remembering this, let’s take another look at the crowds, the traffic, the jam-packed malls, the freeways, the fanfare of it all, and see the commonly unseen: Within the Christmas of the American way lies the Christmas of the American heart.
Because of Christmas we know that the heart of America, despite all appearances and imperfections, is reflective and sincere. It remembers not only friends and fellow-workers, it reaches out to help the needy, the homeless, the unknown. It is as perfect as you and I, and at this time of year it renders service, as we all do to some degree, without thought of recognition or reward.

Because of Christmas we feel the fellowship of kindred spirits, of something deeper than the gift that’s given, and we know instinctively that beyond the frenzy of it all, a hopeful quiet lies ahead, gift-wrapped in a day of peace when the world is strangely still and we are conscious of our deepest self. (pages 3-4)

When it comes to an understanding of the spirit of Christmas, we owe fully as much to art and artists as we do to churches and theologians.
Theologians perpetuated the reality of Christmas, musical composers immortalized its spirit, artists eternalized the dream. Religionists formulated the beliefs and rituals, the secular world enshrined creeds and cathedrals to match imagined cities of God.
As to dogmatic details of the miraculous story, theologians debated long and hard about the obvious differences in Biblical accounts and scanty on-the-scene observances.
Religions have been split, denominations have remained stubbornly divided as to their respective interpretations. Dialectic battles have been waged about the Virgin Birth, the paternity of Jesus, the nature of the Star, the coming of the Wise Men, the shepherds, the manger, the Heavenly Hosts.
No matter. Creative artists, as if knowing that life, love and Christmas are beyond words or argumentation of dogmatic finding out, reached into the heart of “the greatest story ever told” and transmuted the seemingly unknown into a living part of humankind’s esthetic relationship to God.
They, too, idealized the real so that we might realize the ideal. They brought the players in the divine drama to life, identified their roles, portrayed them with qualities and passions found within ourselves.
They enshrined them in ethereal beauty, and we came to know them, not necessarily as they really were, but as they are for us, for us who had the wish and the will to believe in the miracle of Christmas and a creative power within ourselves. (pages 68-70)
Music, ruled out of bounds by early Christian sects because of its worldliness, was so spiritualized by master composers that Christmas would hardly be Christmas without their contributions. The giving of gifts, condemned by many Christians because of the “infidelism” of the Zoroastrian Magi, has become the very heart of the Yuletide observances.
Give God time and the Spirit of Christmas half a chance, and what is now often labeled secularism will be recognized, because of the gift and the giver, as worthy of being a partner in a new and adventurous understanding of one’s private, intimate relationship with God. Consider how satellites, carrying Christmas messages around the globe or exploring outer space, have caused us to increase our interest and wonder in the Bethlehem Star and seek its deeper meaning. Are these signs and wonders secular or spiritual? Or how about the affection for a pet, or a heart full of nostalgic memories, or a special moment of love on Christmas Eve? Be innovative. Spiritualize the secular. (page 113)

Bach includes a long list of the way other languages say Merry Christmas. Here is a sample:

Vroolijk Kerfest (Dutch)
Joyeux Noel (French)
Froeliche Weihnachten (German)
Kala Christougena (Greek)
Mele Kali-ki-mahu (Hawaiian)
Chag Ha-molad Sameach (Hebrew)
Boldog Karacsomy (Hungarian)
Nodlaig Nait Cugat (Irish)
Buon Natale (Italian)
Glad Jul (Swedish)



December 20, 2016

The Meaning of Christmas

Having just completed some extensive research on this topic, beginning with Henry Wood’s (1834-1909) “Christmas-Tide Musing” and continuing through a Google search lasting at least ten minutes, I am informed that Christmas is a hodge-podge of traditions beginning with some atrocious pagan practices, continuing through idols-behind-altars efforts, alternately elevated and condemned for almost as many reasons as there are people, with nearly everything traditionally connected with it spurious, inaccurate, or at least exaggerated. But like a herd of Grinches, these researchers can’t stop Christmas from coming. “It came!” wrote Dr. Seuss. And so the Grinch’s heart grew several sizes that day, as he decided that since he couldn’t lick ‘em, he’d join ‘em.

We know for certain that Jesus of Nazareth was born, grew up, healed and helped a lot of people, and died an innocent victim in a horrible Roman execution engineered by the Jewish leaders at the time. All this is better documented than the life of Julius Caesar. A few days later, eyewitnesses from among his followers discovered the body missing with its grave wrappings remaining in place, collapsed under the weight of the spices used for embalming. This made it clear that the body could not have been stolen, or the wrappings would have been disturbed. The resurrected body—one that could pass through grave wrapping and doors and eat, according to numerous eyewitnesses; and was seen by as many as 500 people at once—remained off and on with the followers for a few weeks, then was seen to ascend into heaven. The life and teachings of Jesus have touched more lives and made a greater difference than any other life before or since. That isn’t just going to go away. The Nativity legends found in the Bible and elsewhere often hark back to Old Testament prophecies and are pretty tough to prove or disprove. The December 25th date began with pagan customs to brighten the darkest time of year and was also used in an attempt to bring people into Christianity. It backfired. But the darkest-time-of-year bit was still a good idea.

Coming back to the present, one of the cornerstones of New Thought is the idea that thoughts are things, that we form our future out of our present thinking, one thought at a time. The central idea of process thought is that the basic building blocks of the universe are strings of bursts of energy, quanta, coming maybe once every tenth of a second, rather like frames of a movie. Each frame is a combination of the pattern of the past, God’s perfect possibilities offered to that frame, and yours and my choices as to how much of each to combine in each of our present moments. We have free will to continue a string/series of such choices until they add up to our heart’s desire. New Thought talks about ideas: idealism. Process thought talks about panexperientialism, a sort of cleaned-up idealism (this is what philosophers do all day: sit around, remove old errors, and synergize what is left into a new idea bigger and better than the old ones). Pan means universal, and those frames I spoke of are what A.N. Whitehead called occasions of experience.

Back to the meaning of Christmas: ultimately, it means what we individually say it does. Myths and legends are teaching tales, regardless of what literal truth they may or may not contain. Our job as thinkers is to pull the highest and best out of them and form it into our continuing experiences, moment by moment, using the “substance” on hand, as Jesus did. Our Elder Brother and Wayshower told us, “greater things than these shall ye do”, and if we are to follow him, we had better believe that. We can choose what is highest and best for us and those we love from all the tales of trees and star, shepherds and kings, ox and ass, material and spiritual gifts given with love in honor of the King of Love. If there were abuses and distortions in past activities or celebrations, we can choose not to emulate them, but to seek the higher “sunny apartments” of thought. We can love our neighbors, as that baby whose birth we sing taught us to do. “Miracles” (operations of laws of the universe as yet not understood) happen when love is born into the world, one moment at a time, until those moments pile up into something amazing. In Florida, we skip the snow but keep the mistletoe and presents under the tree, which may be a palm tree. And for Pete’s sake, remember that Jesus was an observant Jew, and most of those people in the Bible were Jews. All Christians are first of all Jews, but most of them don’t seem to know it! We can all join in whatever part of each other’s celebrations makes sense to us. I have been told that Jews have a tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve! This year, Christmas and Hanukkah coincide, but most of the time, Christians and Jews cover for each other on duty rosters when important holidays for either occur. And that’s as it should be.

Christmas celebrates the spirit of love being born into the world. In my first grade classes, now and then, someone would come in with a rumor that there was no Santa Claus, that it was “really” your parents. I always told them that Santa Claus was the spirit of love, and that love could go anywhere and do anything. I urged them to go to the person who had told them otherwise and make that statement, and that the person would surely agree. And they did! Santa does have lots of helpers, especially in shopping malls; and sometimes those helpers turn out to be parents or grandparents. Older children might exchange a knowing wink.

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!”

And you remember who himself carved the roast beast!


December 27, 2016

A Prayer for Christmas Morning

Henry Jackson van Dyke (1852-1933) was an American author, educator, and Presbyterian clergyman. He was a graduate of Princeton and Princeton Theological Seminary, and he was Professor of English literature there from 1899-1923, with a few years off for sabbaticals and service elsewhere. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a friend and former classmate, appointed him Minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg right before World Was I broke out. Van Dyke was a very skillful diplomat, and also lectured at the University of Paris from 1908-9. In the Presbyterian Church, he chaired the committee that wrote the first printed liturgy.

So why am I talking about him two days into the Christmas octave? Because he was also a prolific author, and one of his most famous works is a Christmas story: The Other Wise Man. You may have heard about it: a fourth wise man intends to journey with the other three, but misses their appointed rendezvous, so he spends the rest of the story trying to play catch-up and just missing things, for he keeps stopping to help fellow humans in difficulty, using up his gold or whatever gift he has brought for the Christ child. He arrives in Jerusalem just in time to see Jesus led to his crucifixion, but something makes him understand that it was all good, “inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). It’s a great story; do try to track it down if you haven’t read it.

But here’s The Rest of The Story: Years ago, a dear friend gave the Philosopher and me a basket of goodies for Christmas, and included in it was a little, specially produced and illuminated book, A Prayer for Christmas Morning, by the aforementioned Henry (not our Henry (1834-1909). I wish you could see the beautifully illuminated polychrome pages, but here is the text:

The day of Joy returns, Father in Heaven, and crowns another year with peace and good will. Help us rightly to remember the birth of JESUS, that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise-men. Close the doors of hate and open the doors of love all over the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting. Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts. May the Christ-mas morning make us happy to be thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our bed with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Another way to pray is to end with “in Jesus’ name”. In biblical times, someone’s name was his or her character, so to pray in the name of Jesus is to pray with the character of Jesus, something we can all strive continually to do, to follow him.

As quoted by his friend Helen Keller, repeated in Wikipedia:

‘I’m not an optimist,’ says Dr. van Dyke, ‘there’s too much evil in the world and in me. Nor am I a pessimist; there is too much good in the world and in God. So I am just a meliorist, believing that He wills to make the world better, and trying to do my bit to help and wishing that it were more.’

New Thoughters might take just a bit of exception to this, suggesting that one needs to stop wishing and start affirming. Evil, like darkness and cold, is an absence, not a substance. When you turn on the light in a dark room, you don’t have to chase the shadows out of the doors and windows. And, as the saying goes, “God isn’t through with me yet”. I am a work in process, along with God’s other works. God supplies his perfect possibilities for me at the beginning of each occasion of experience, for me to accept as much as I am ready to do to combine with the pattern of the past, producing a new creation in the present.

May the spirit of love, which we see as recognizably entering the world with the birth of Jesus, fill your hearts and minds for the rest of the Christmas octave and on into Epiphany, the manifestation of this birth of love to folks everywhere, carrying great blessings into your life and the lives of the rest of us on the planet, on into the fresh new year to come, a year full of peace and prosperity and love.