Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (IV)

This is the fourth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The fourth essay is by Keith Ward, holder of MA and DD degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. I was rather caught on the back foot by Keith Ward’s online session being scheduled for Monday 5th November and me only getting to know that on the morning of 4th November; I thought I had until around the end of the week, as I generally need more than a day to get my thoughts in order, so this is a revised and expanded version of the post I originally put up in the group on Sunday.

Anyhow, for anyone who wants a more concentrated dose of Dr. Ward’s idealism, here’s a link to a lecture on his book “Why There Almost Certainly is a God”, a book I’ve read. I also attended a slightly different lecture given by him on the book some years ago.
I was, therefore, already aware that felt he was able to found an acceptance of a concept of God in idealism. OK, I would lower the odds from the “almost certain” he obviously accepts if we base the conclusion purely on the argument from idealism (though I think there almost certainly is a God for other reasons), even if you accept idealism, but he makes a good argument.
I’m fairly sure I’m not an idealist myself, and have serious intuitive misgivings about the arguments for it (not least based on my difficulty in understanding how I can stub my toe on an idea), though I’m not certain. I do regard concepts about reality (including scientific laws and hypotheses) as, ultimately, stories we tell about how things are, which are more or less useful depending on how descriptive they are, how useful they are in predicting what we don’t currently know and how easy they are to work with (sometimes called the principle of parsimony; the simpler explanation is preferred, all other things being equal). It also seems evident that evolution is unlikely to have resulted in us knowing reality, rather than something that is useful. It is therefore rather difficult for me to go from things which I generally regard as “made up stories” likely to be inaccurate to things in the mind being more fundamental than what is actually there – though, of course, like Dr. Ward, I think we cannot know for certain what is actually there.
I’m even less certain whether I’m therefore a Cartesian dualist, accepting that there is mind and there is matter or, in an attempt to simplify the whole issue, a materialist, which seem to be the only other normally accepted categories. I see problems with all three options (there may be sort of four options, if panpsychism is taken to be a fundamentally materialist-ish philosophy, as seems to be Galen Strawson’s position). I’m actually fairly comfortable thinking of the material universe as the body of God and of whatever it is that I appear to make contact with (and be in danger of vanishing into) as the consciousness of God, which is a dualist concept. It may not be right, but it’s fairly parsimonious and seems useful. Strawson’s idea leads me to wonder whether what is actually there is neither matter nor mind, but something else entirely, but which seems like matter in one set of circumstances and like mind in another, analagous to wave-particle duality.
But I am not a philosopher (Dr. Ward once made an argument for the existence of God based, I think, on Alvin Plantinga, and ended by saying something along the lines of “if you think this is rubbish, you’re probably not a philosopher; if you think it raises interesting points, you may be a philosopher”, so I accepted his verdict…)
Back to the article, I am very much with him on issues such as Biblical interpretation, in which (to simplify) he takes scripture as being a set of human accounts based on experiences of God; it’s when he gets into the philosophy that I start having worries. There’s the issue about “not enough time” again, though – I did once (before hearing his lecture) take apart Plantinga’s argument to my own satisfaction, to try to demonstrate that my intuition about it was correct, but it took me over a week, and I resented having taken so much time over what had immediately seemed to me a specious argument, even if I couldn’t say why (not a philosopher…)
Perhaps the connection which worries me most in his thinking is one which wasn’t necessarily explicit in the article, but definitely is in the lecture – the step from saying that a disembodied consciouness can be thought of to saying that such a thing exists. I can rather readily think of quite a lot of things which most definitely don’t exist (and actually some of them, such as the square root of -1, i.e. an “imaginary number”, are extremely useful fictions – a comparison I’ve been known to use against hardline scientific materialists to suggest that a God-concept is potentially at least useful). I cannot, on the other hand, think of any example of a consciousness which is not embodied, and think of the general experience that when you damage the body, there is a tendency for you to damage the consciousness, when you destroy the body, you always destroy the consciousness (at least in any form we can reliably detect). That leads me to think of consciousness as pattern; you can have a pattern made of various materials, but there must always be material to be patterned in that way and, of course, pattern is often in the eye of the beholder rather than in the thing itself (cloud castles, pictures in the fire…). In this I note that I am close to the Hebrew conception of spirits (at least, as that conception is put forward by Walter Wink in his “Powers” trilogy) as needing in all circumstances to be embodied.
For much the same reason, I’m not sure I accept that there must be any such mind of maximal value, if such a thing can indeed exist.
I’m also a little perturbed by the concept that a disembodied mind of maximal value would love itself (on which he quotes Aristotle). I find it hard to regard self-love as a virtue, though self-knowledge definitely is (I could refer to Sun Tzu on that front… “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”) But I’d be with him in saying that were there a disembodied mind of maximal knowledge and power, that would be further maximised by being in a loving relationship with a creation. Indeed, it may well be necessary in order for such a mind to know itself, that there be in existence other minds (I’m thinking of Lacan here). OK, he does then slip slightly (IMHO) in saying that that mind would “create a physical universe”, because that’s a step away from idealism into at least Cartesian duality. Is he, I ask myself, merely suggesting that mind is prior to matter? In that case, I think he is fixed with the difficulty philosophers seem to find in working out how one influences the other.
However, once you accept the idea of such a disembodied mind, for such a mind to wish to create “Other conscious autonomous powers” seems less problematic, unless (like me) you think that in order to exist, they need to be embodied, and his derivations through the rest of the essay seem to me to flow reasonably logically from that premise. So he could be right – but in my estimation, very probably isn’t.

Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (III)

This is the third in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The third essay is from Ilia Delio OSF. Dr. Delio pursued a career in neurobiology to postdoctoral level, and then joined an order of Carthusian nuns (the order of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross -what’s not to love for a mystic?), transferring later to the Franciscans. In the process she studied theology, and gained a doctorate in that as well. She talks of living “two lives”, one for science, one for religion, both “hardline”, but of eventually integrating the two.

This speaks to me in several ways. The first is that I am a scientific rationalist with a mystic sometimes awkwardly cohabiting the same mind, “tacked on”, as it were, by a peak mystical experience in my teens which I was unable to discount, and by many subsequent, largely lesser experiences which were confirmatory of the first one. Unlike Dr. Delio, I don’t think I can claim that the two are well integrated, just that they have learned to talk with each other reasonably politely. Ideas which offer the possibility of a synthesis to my internal dichotomy are therefore really attractive to me…

The second is that she displays wonderfully the choice which faces very many mystics, whether to go off and explore mysticism as deeply as possible, which in the Christian traditions is generally achieved by joining a monastic order or becoming a solitary contemplative, or whether to descend from the mountaintop and immerse onseself in the real world. Both Dr. Delio and myself opted for the second (her in the move to the Franciscans), though unlike her I attempted to pursue science and religion at the same time, which certainly didn’t improve my scientific credentials and which also meant that I didn’t go on to study religion formally.

She has some wonderful lines which demand going away and meditating on them for a while – “Only in communion can God be what God is, and only in communion can God be at all”. “God is not conceivable except in so far as he coincides with evolution  but without being lost in (sort of a “final cause”) the centre of convergence of cosmogenesis. God is dynamically interior to creation, a divine energy which is imperceptible, gradually bringing all things to their fullness”. I find those beautiful and poetic, and sufficiently vague as not to try giving an unreasonable precision to a numinous experience.

I’ll pass quickly over her finding Trinity in father, son and the love between them as I expect to rant a bit about trinity and mysticism when talking about Richard Rohr (the third is incapable of being a person, for me, and the concept of a relationship between that loving relationship and, respectively, the father and the son other than is already implicit in the relationship just does not make sense to me – how do you have a relationship with a relationship? – so although this works for me as a threeness, it does not work as Trinity).

There are, however, aspects of her attempt to bring science and mysticism together, using a lot of philosophical terms, which grate on me. Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking, which she draws on considerably, talks of God very much in terms of telos (final cause) and ontology (formal cause). To me, for there to be any telos, any purpose to the universe, demands that there be a purposer, so that any deduction of God from the point of view of final cause is assuming its conclusion – not that this is specifically what Dr. Delio is saying, but when I read between the lines… (Note, I also think that there are some very difficult problems inherent in this position when contemplating things from the point of view of a physicist, notably in respect of entropy, the “arrow of time”, quantum phenomena and uncertainty). Again, in the case of ontology, I am exceptionally sceptical that the way things actually are is something which we can ever claim to know; to put it briefly, all I think we can do is hypothesise that if something were the way things actually are, then we would see certain results, and if we do indeed see those results, then the hypothesis has some utility; if it predicts events we did not previously know would happen, then it is worth working on further. Donald Hoffman gives a really good account of why we should not assume that we can know anything ontological in this article.

I also have huge misgivings about any idea of God as an absolutely fundamental underpinning of everything which is, which is what trying to find God in ontology results in. Teilhard wrote, among many other things “Le Milieu Divin” (the Divine Milieu), suggesting that we think of God as the “ground of all being”. One trouble with concepts of that sort is that, for a scientist, it looks like adding to or subtracting from each side of an equation the same term, or multiplying or dividing both side in the same manner. The first thing a scientist is going to do is remove that term, because it has become redundant to any solution of the equation. It is equally entirely unclear to me why there needs to be a “ground of all being”. Finally, this kind of thinking results in a God-concept far too much like a mechanistic law of nature, and this utterly fails to capture the personal nature of the mystical experience – I cannot think that God is less than personal, in some way (although I accept that this may be more a function of my psychology than it is of the actuality of existence…) I have similar problems when she says “God is the name of absolute love” – love is an emotion, an affection, a psychological disposition, not a person. I am entirely comfortable saying that whatever it is that is God is not less than loving (I’d say “perfectly loving” there, except that that seems to me to overspecify).

But I like it when she quotes Teilhard as talking of evolution as “cosmic personalisation”…

This has just been my reaction to the essay as published; I have every intention of exploring Dr. Delio’s work further, because it is entirely possible that my qualms are misguided because we are only skimming the surface of her thought, and she does produce some wonderfully evocative phrases.

I just prefer to view them as poetry rather than as science…

Refugees, tribes and fear

There has been a lot of posting on facebook this year about Trump’s immigration policy, and particularly the apparently new policy of separating illegal immigrant parents from their children. On that subject, I can think of no better analysis than Fr. James Martin’s article in America magazine. The injunctions throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament (notably in Matthew 25) are quite clear that Christians (and Jews) should welcome and support the foreigner in their country.

At the same time, there was a lot of discussion (in Europe, at least) a while ago about Italy’s refusal to allow a ship full of immigrants from Africa to dock in an Italian port, which followed on multiple occasions when ill-constructed vessels overloaded with such immigrants have sunk between North Africa and Italy and between Turkey and Greece. It was therefore with considerable interest that I watched this video about the border between Mellilla and Morocco.

I do find Spain’s attitude to its enclaves in North Africa at Ceuta and Mellilla ironic, considering that they have throughout my lifetime been making a fuss about the British enclave in Spain (Gibraltar), and periodically closing the border – not, in that case, to stem a flood of British immigrants into Spain, but to make life as difficult as possible for the Gibraltarians. All three of these enclaves date back to past wars in which the territories were captured or ceded; the Spanish ones are longer-standing than is Gibraltar, but all three are characterised by having long established populations which are not the same as the surrounding territory, but which strongly self-identify with their “mother country”. Gibraltarians, for instance, are absolutely adamant that they do not want to be part of Spain. (This is a topic of particular interest to me, as my wife was born in Gibraltar and so is technically Gibraltarian as well as English, courtesy of her father being stationed there at the time of her birth, and also because it was only about 20 years ago that I first visited Spain – previously I had been influenced by my mother’s ardent dislike of Spain because of their attitude to Gibraltar…)

I was particularly struck in the “borders” video by the tide of humanity trying to get over the border fence into Mellilla, and therefore into Europe. I will admit to being torn between two views on the kind of unlimited immigration. One side of me says that, in accordance with scripture, we should welcome the refugee, care for them and help them enter our society. On an individual basis, that is certainly how I view refugees (there are some refugees resident in my town in Yorkshire, and while I haven’t had significant contact with them, I have supported them to a modest extent).

On the other hand, I look at the pictures from Mellilla, and part of me is terrified by the flood of people who, I have to admit to feeling, are “not like us” (there have been similar videos of people trying to get into the Calais terminal to get through the  Channel Tunnel which have had much the same effect on me, but I think the Mellilla clip is particularly powerful – or scary, depending on your view.) This part of me questions when a movement of refugees becomes an invasion – and my immediate thought is “Am I being racist here?”, particularly because President Trump has just characterised a caravan of a few thousand Honduran refugees as an invasion and mobilised many more than their numbers of troops to repulse them.

I don’t actually think I am being racist, as such – the colour of their skins is irrelevant, I would be just as concerned if they were as white as I am (or if they were blue-eyed blond haired Nordic types, so rather whiter than me). Their desperation is definitely a factor – I do not trust desperate people not to be violent, sometimes very violent. The sheer numbers are also a factor – I’m very conscious of crowd mentality, and its tendency towards violence and tendency to regard anyone who is not part of that crowd as an enemy to be eradicated. Both of those concerns are neutral as regards race. But I do worry, probably largely because of my upbringing, but perhaps also because despite a commitment in principle to the community of all of humanity, I still have some tribal leanings.

Growing up, I recall many of my parents’ generation being casually racist in their speech and attitudes, which I was brought up to avoid like the plague, despite living in what was effectively a white monoculture. Even so, my father, in particular, was often casually xenophobic, and he stereotyped other nations in a way which grated with me, including several European nationalities. The French, Italians and Germans were particular targets for him, though we often holidayed in France and Italy and he spoke both languages at at least tourist level (I could understand his generation being wary of Germans, given that they had lived through World War II). Is that, I ask myself, actually racism? He was pretty much unconcerned with skin colour (which is the most obvious basis of racism), but he was definitely sold on the idea that nationalities had general characteristics. He was very keen on jokes such as “Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian and it’s all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, the police German and it’s all organised by the Italians.” But I think he also extended this to the point where, for instance, he would have probably been reluctant to employ a Frenchman as a mechanic… and that is, for me, a step too far (and Aerospatiale gives the lie to that stereotype anyhow). Was he being racist? I don’t know, but I’m pretty certain he was being “ethnicist” (if there’s such a word), and (although that might be the same thing), tribal.

Thinking of my reaction to the Mellilla video, I think I may also be somewhat ethnicist and tribal at a very deep rooted level. These people are not “my tribe”… they are different (if only because “my tribe” is generally not desperate, starving and/or afraid to return home). I grant that I worry about immigration generally, on the grounds that, firstly, I live on a fairly small island with a high population density compared with most countries (though less than, say, the Netherlands in Europe or Singapore elsewhere) and I worry about the capacity of the country to support a massively greater population – the UK is not, for instance, self-sufficient in food production as matters stand and our international balance of payments is not wonderful (issues which I would not worry about at all were I American), and if Brexit goes through, we are going to need to be very self-sucfficient, at least until (and if) we can negotiate a new set of trade treaties.

Secondly I worry on the basis that a really major flood of people immigrating would change the character of society more rapidly than it has actually been changing over my lifetime – and I think that pace of change has been excessive and has led to fractures in the fabric of our society which may well have catastrophic repercussions in the future. I worry, for instance, that immigrants may tilt the political balance in the direction of authoritarianism (immigration so far has already produced a substantial far right as a reaction to it, which is itself deeply authoritarian, but it is the ingrained attitudes of the immigrants themselves which I worry about there).

Yes, I will admit to a degree of nostalgia for what I could easily view as a “golden age” when a broad communitarianism informed all three major political parties (yes, including the “one nation” Conservatives who used to be dominant) and I could think that although we might be becoming far more secular, the “social gospel” was so rooted in society that we could only move in the direction of more communitarianism, when there was reasonable job security once you got a job in most areas, where education was state-funded up to and including degree level and when concerns which had strategic importance to the country or which formed natural monopolies (such as steel and power generation in the first case and railways and telecommunications in the second) were run on behalf of the people as a whole and not for the interests of a small group of shareholders (yes, I will concede that they were not necessarily all run very well, but considering the current state of the railways, for instance, I am wholly unconvinced that an artificial competition has produced a better result). I am, after all, an old guy now, and have always had a conservative streak (with a small “c”). Turning the clock back is, however, not possible – but we can look at the period from, say, 1950 to 1980 (to an approximation) and think “yes, we were doing some things better than, and some worse then” and actually learn from our history, and direct the future with that in mind.

In the case of national identity, which to me is a form of tribalism (about which I wrote several posts in 2017, of which this is the first), so long as we are going to organise ourselves in nation states (and I don’t think we’re remotely ready for something much beyond that – and Brexit is a movement in the other direction, profoundly reactionary, which illustrates the idea that we were not yet quite ready enough for a larger identity than the nation in the European dream), we are going to need to have some characteristics which bring us together as a nation. Otherwise, we will just be a collection of individuals living in a geographical area. We may, in fact, be just that already, but enough of us don’t think so to have won the Brexit vote. That is a dangerous position to be in…

But I pause for a moment, and wonder if the crowds at Calais are sufficient to put a significant further dent in what it is to be a British nation, if those in Mellilla are sufficient to put a dent in what it is to be a nascent European nation, or if a few thousand Hondurans are able to dent the concept of America. I conclude that they are nothing like enough to do this in each of those cases – so my reaction of fear is unwarranted. So is that of President Trump and his supporters.

Fear, unfortunately, breeds authoritarianism, and authoritarianism is deeply contrary to the essence of both what it is to be British and what it is to be American. We must, I think, examine that fear and reject it.