Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (II)

This is the second 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 which is a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, which is studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The second essay is by Rupert Sheldrake. Dr. Sheldrake is a biochemist and cell biologist by original formation, having held fellowships at Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently listed in Wikipedia as a researcher in parapsychology, which is, I suspect, regarded as a “put down” by many readers. I’m assisted in writing this by the recent interview with him on Homebrewed Christianity.

As I’m both a mystic and, by original academic formation, a scientist (I have a BSc in Physics (Theoretical Option) and currently do a little work as a research assistant with a company doing R&D in Industrial Chemistry), I felt an immediate kinship with Dr. Sheldrake, who found his own peak mystical experience and thus panentheism initially through psychedelic experiences in India. I have no worries about the means used to achieve an initial mystical experience, myself. Personally I’ve found psychedelics unsatisfactory, as they don’t deliver quite the same experience as I initially had without chemical assistance, and while I note what he says in the Homebrewed podcast about baptism possibly having induced near-death experiences (perhaps with the aid of extensive fasting), I really don’t recommend methods which are physically dangerous, though I can confirm that several of them are quite effective.

I particularly liked his initial statement “I believe that God is in me and that I am in God. I think that God is in all nature and that all nature is in God”. I can definitely live with that as an overall start point. I also very much like his unwillingness to be bound by scientific orthodoxy, and in general terms agree with his criticisms of a hard-line reductive materialism. Like him, however, I expect that everything will have a naturalistic explanation, even if we currently have no idea what that explanation might be (and I’d add from my own perspective that that explanation may be one which human intellect is inadequate to grasp – certainly, peak mystical experiences seem to convey understandings which are entirely impossible to reduce into my own thought processes to date, so it may be that no-one is going to be able to do so).

At that point, however, Dr. Sheldrake and myself start drifting apart. He rather likes Whitehead’s process philosophy, at second hand, at least, as he says Whitehead himself is too difficult to understand (something which I fervently agree with); I rather like the conclusions of process theologians, although I’m not sure I follow the basis on which they operate (I can reach the same conclusions from straightfoward panentheism). I cannot get my head round the Whiteheadian set of concepts as a basis for reality, myself, even for the level of quantum physics which Whitehead was influenced by.

But he goes on to espouse actual panpsychism, and I can’t get my head round that as a basis for reality either. Not at the level of physics, at any rate, and that is a couple of layers of emergence/epiphenomenalism below Sheldrake’s biology. At the level of physics, we already have wave-particle duality to contend with (for which my best answer is that probably whatever the material of the unviverse actually is at that level isn’t either waves or particles, but something which behaves in ways we can best interpret in one circumstance as a particle, another as a wave). I’m entirely happy with his conclusion that reductive materialism doesn’t actually describe what is there, in other words.

But reductive materialism does describe pretty well how what is there behaves, at least in concepts which humanity can get their heads around (or, at least, an elite who have some comprehension of quantum physics…) I don’t really know of any circumstance in which Whitehead’s “units of experience” or panpsychism’s “units of consciousness” would provide a decent explanation of how what is there behaves, with the possible exception of the “hard problem” of consciousness. And, at the moment, I am not sure there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. There is, to be sure, no full explanation of how matter produces consciousness, but I don’t see that that means the problem is particularly hard – and to posit panpsychism to plug that gap looks to me a lot like a “God of the gaps” explanation. I actually think that some of the speculations of Douglas Hofstadter in “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and “I am a Strange Loop” have some distinct promise in answering that problem, and in the meantime, a wholesale revision of what underlies reality (and further complication of the wave-particle issue) seems to say the least premature. Though, just perhaps, adding consciousness into the mix might offer some option which could underlie wave-particle duality…

He also produced the hypothesis of morphic resonance. Now, I have some sympathy with him in respect of the reception of that by the scientific academy (which was, bluntly put, that it was scientific heresy or just an attempt to reintroduce magic). The suggestion that something is heresy generally makes me want to examine it more closely. Unfortunately, it seems the hypothesis is probably untestable in practice, and what little evidence I’ve seen put forward for it actually existing argues for an extremely weak effect, if any. It might well link with Jung’s concept of the “collective unconcscious”, particularly if some form of telepathy (which the idea would seem to need in practice) were in play.

I used to particularly like the idea of the collective unconscious, which seemed to me to gel really well with mystical experience. The trouble is, I can find no actual evidence for it being a solid concept, and despite the peculiarities of dogs knowing when their owner is going to come home (which I’ve experienced with several of our dogs in the past, and absolutely cannot explain by any known and verified mechanism), it really doesn’t seem to work with humans.

I’m also very uneasy about any suggestion that there’s a telos, a final cause, something towards which things are being drawn. Again, I’d really like to think that there were such a thing, and mystical experience might just possibly offer a way in which we might know what that is before it manifested (in which case we’d be arguing from a conclusion…). That way, to my mind, lies a controlling intellect – there can be no purpose without a purposer. But I don’t see nearly enough evidence that there is. It would be very nice to think, with MLK, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Actually, though, I think that it should bend towards justice, but it’s up to us to make it do so. I’m reluctantly with Teresa of Ávila in thinking “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

All that said, I wish Dr. Sheldrake well, and hope that one day he surprises me.

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