“Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience–everything of which we are aware, which we enjoy, perceive, will or think–can be interpreted”
“The metaphysician is seeking, amid the dim recesses of his ape-like consciousness, and beyond the reach of dictionary language, for the premises implicit in all reasoning. The speculative methods of metaphysics are dangerous, easily perverted. So is all Adventure; but Adventure belongs to the essence of civilization”.
Philosopher A.N. Whitehead
– Alfred North Whitehead
Understanding creation to be alive
None of the most prominent religious leaders in human history were believed to have derived their wisdom from studying pre-existing texts. Books were written about them – or dictated by them – but the precise interpretation of ancient books was not thought to be crucial to their personal enlightenment. It was their own words and actions (and/or beliefs about their words and actions) that gained these teachers so many adherents and such memorable places in human history.
It’s more than mildly ironic that followers of the epic religious leaders, by contrast, often seem obsessed with ancient texts. The veracity – and precise interpretation – of particular religious literature seems a topic of endless fascination. I’ve never understood the attraction. Why should any text be entirely true and relevant for all eternity?
I accept that, to this day, many religious people hold such views in relation to their own religion and its sacred literature. I respect their choice to do so, but can’t share a belief in timeless literal perfection. Ultimately, I think, it’s a belief sustained by faith alone.
In popular discourse – steered and amplified by the mass media – it is these ‘text-obsessives’ who are generally perceived as standard-bearers for theism – belief in a universal super-intelligence of far greater antiquity and scope than human intelligence. I think that sells theism short. More sophisticated syntheses of religion and science were constructed and discussed generations ago. Indeed, Deism – the notion of an non-interventionist immanent God, approachable through science and reason – was popular at the time of the European Enlightenment hundreds of years ago. Yet even in the 21st Century, the dogmatism of fundamentalists is typically held up as the quintessence of theistic belief systems. Possibly because that’s because scriptural certainty is the perfect foil for its antithesis: dogmatic atheism.
Modern debate about the essential nature of the universe is thereby typically reduced to a false dichotomy. We’re presented with a choice between two starkly contrasting world views:
- belief in the existence of an active, intrusive, interfering and somewhat anthropomorphic ‘God’, an ineffable super-spirit ‘revealed’ to us most clearly in divinely sanctioned literature – or
- belief that scientific laws and processes alone created the universe we experience, directed by entirely unconscious and essentially purposeless physical processes, a belief-system summarised well in this brief quotation from Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity (emphasis added) “man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.”
It’s as though there are only two concepts of reality worth discussing, epitomised by Jerry Falwell on the one hand and Richard Dawkins on the other. This suggests regression, not progress. Notwithstanding popular myth, the famous 1860 encounter over Darwinian theory between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce was a comparatively sophisticated debate between TWO scientifically literate protagonists.
Theism posits the primacy of ‘spirit’ – etherial and sentient. It avers the material universe was created by the divine spirit, a non-material being that henceforth has been more or less ‘interventionist’ in the material world of things, beings and people. Matter, life and consciousness are regarded as divine in origin – products of the creator-spirit.
Atheism posits the primacy of matter/energy, and avers that life evolved from evolved from simpler, non-living antecedents and that consciousness likewise evolved out of unconscious antecedents. Atheism asserts that life and consciousness are emergent properties of the material universe – characteristics of complex biochemical assemblages that came into being and developed these remarkable propensities only through mechanical, unconscious, physical processes.
This materialistic and atheistic view of the universe is prevalent in modern secular societies, especially within the scientific community. As a teenager, enthralled by science, I considered myself an atheist for several years. At the time, I tended to view history as a gradual, long-cycle climb out of religious superstition and saw atheism as the manifestation of a humanity liberated from a childish past.
I gradually became aware of significant intellectual difficulties with the atheistic view of reality within scientific theory, which eventually contributed to my eventual rejection of materialist atheism.
Anyone attempting an understanding of reality that takes into account the totality of accumulated knowledge should be aware of unsolved problems, mainly connected with evolutionary theory, that have been largely dismissed by a dogmatic scientific mainstream even though (or perhaps because) they’ve proved intractable to generations of scholars.
Here are a few of them:
- What explains the origin of the cosmos – the material whole we call the cosmos/universe which includes scientific ‘laws’ that supposedly ‘governed’ its subsequent evolution? (I’ll call this the ‘problem of the original miracle‘)
- Why is it that, in our universe, the observed ‘laws of nature’ and ‘universal constants’ seem fine-tuned to make organic life as we know it possible? (the ‘problem of the anthropic principle‘)
- How did major and statistically improbable ‘leaps’ in evolution occur, from the initial (postulated) ‘origin of life’ to subsequent macroevolutionary leaps? (the ‘problem of organic macroevolution’)
- How did consciousness come into being? Are consciousness, experience and memory really just emergent properties and epiphenomena of biochemical configurations that arose by random evolutionary processes (the ‘problem of consciousness’)
- Considering only our own planet and solar system, how is it that despite significant variations in solar output and composition of the earth’s atmosphere over billions of years, temperature, pH and water availability on planet earth’s surface remained continuously within a fairly narrow ‘sweet spot’ band suitable for sustaining organic life (the ‘problem of Gaian homestasis‘)
I don’t believe these problems are satisfactorily explained by mainstream modern science. Moreover, it seems unlikely to me that they can be explained within the atheistic/materialistic paradigm. They suggest that the materialistic/atheistic world view itself is flawed – at least as flawed as theism in its crude manifestation – and that the analogies underpinning both views of reality are inappropriate.
I now believe the universe is better understood, not as spirit/idea in essence or as matter/energy in essence, but as essentially organism. That’s not to claim the nature of the cosmic organism is directly comparable to organic life as we know it – but rather to assert that ‘living being’ is a more appropriate analogy for the whole cosmos (and many of its component parts) than ‘idea’ or ‘thing’. This intellectual tradition is known as ‘organicism‘.
The organicist view of reality is probably ancient; it’s possible it was humanity’s oldest way of ‘understanding’ the universe. Certainly, organicism is not a new or original idea.
The British philosopher A.N. Whitehead is often cited as the leading organicist of the modern era. His ‘process metaphysics’ is highly sophisticated and not for the faint-hearted. But its ambition cannot be denied. When he turned to this work in the 1920s, Whitehead was well versed in cutting edge physical science. A brilliant mathematician (he co-authored Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell in the first decade of the 20th century), Whitehead was acquainted with the nuances of Einstein’s relativity theory and early quantum physics. He attempted a reconciliation between metaphysics and post-Newtonian physics which more recent scholars have built on, including highly original philosophical thinkers such as biologist Rupert Sheldrake and theologian David Ray Griffin.
Organicism provides an alternative to both dogmatic theism (based largely on faith) and blinkered atheism that blithely discounts pointers to phenomena inexplicable by chance and necessity alone.
Organicism reverses the common modern notion that ‘life’ evolved from matter. In a organicist model, it’s implausible in the extreme that human consciousness is the first or only form of ‘consciousness'; organicist tend to view life and consciousness as intrinsic (not emergent) properties of the universe as a whole.
Instead of ‘universal laws’, organicism posits universal tendencies, such as the tendency to greater complexity of organisation and diversity over time – tendencies that themselves might be subject to change (Sheldrake believe they can change and calls them ‘habits’)
Evolutionary leaps so significant they cannot easily be explained by Darwinian processes are far more explicable within an organicist paradigm. Their phylogentic extraordinariness is similar to the largely unsolved ‘problem’ of ontological morphogenesis in organic life as we know it. Organicism views creative evolution – whether evolutionary (for phyla) or morphogenetic (for individual organisms) as an intrinsic tendency of the cosmos – not an accidental consequence.
Organicism is a distinctive cosmological paradigm with profound philosophical and religious implications. It’s as different from dogmatic theism as it is from atheism. Attractively, it can ‘connect’ with both enlightened religion and honest science.
Organicists can and should acknowledge the value of:
- sophisticated traditions and techniques for developing spirituality, compassion and moral qualities.
- science, reason and real scepticism.
Positing that all existence is essentially alive, organicists are interested in understanding, appreciating and living in harmony with the whole creative universe of which we find ourselves a part. We can draw on both theistic/idealistic traditions and scientific/rationalist traditions to aid our understanding and appreciation of the entirety of existence.
Viewing the cosmos as fundamentally organism, organicists seek neither to dominate nor renounce the material world, but to understand, appreciate and enjoy our living cosmos and find within it meaning, purpose and joie de vivre.