Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with Merlyn, who talks about bridging left-brain rationality and right-brain mysticism. As always, please remember that not all contributors necessarily identify with HumanisticPaganism or share the views expressed elsewhere on this site.
One reason I like Wicca is that this eclectic religion has no central creed (e.g., statement of beliefs) that all Wiccans are expected to unquestioningly accept. As soon as some authority figure, be it preacher, pope or high priestess, states that I should accept their beliefs or creed, I immediately challenge their authority to tell me how to think. As a person suspicious of all required beliefs, I applauded Starhawk when she stated in her book The Spiral Dance that, when asked about her beliefs, she said she believed in rocks.
Personal beliefs bother me less than the creeds of organized religion. If you and I hold opposing beliefs about the existence of a certain god, it does not matter as long as we do not try to convert each other to our points of view. Beliefs limit our thinking. Natural curiosity shuts down because beliefs explain everything. Once you believe in something, whether it is Jesus, the Great Mother Goddess, or certain winning lottery numbers, you start to feel that you must defend your beliefs against all doubters who question those beliefs. If you have political power, persecuting the doubters is just a step or two down the road. Both Catholic and Protestant countries repressed their respective religious dissenters with an Inquisition for a couple hundred years after the Reformation. Ultimately the repression failed, and we should thank those past religious dissenters whose suffering helped bring us the religious freedom we enjoy today.
Are beliefs unavoidable? In a certain sense they are, because we use our beliefs to make sense of this world. We naturally hope that the same familiar patterns we observe in Nature today will operate tomorrow, next year, and in the next century. Without giving it much thought, we assume (an implicit belief) that gravity always works, the sun rises and sets at certain predictable times, and the seasons always follow each other in a regular yearly cycle. More esoteric beliefs about why we were created, what is our purpose on earth, and where we go after death, satisfy the craving of our human minds for an explanation of these big cosmic questions. Each of us should form our own opinions about these questions without worrying about whose beliefs are correct.
My personal belief system is complicated because I alternate between two opposing viewpoints: left-brain rationality and right-brain mysticism. My rational views reflect the skeptical and analytical attitudes I gained as a Unitarian. Thinking as a rational person, I view all religion as pure human invention and perhaps illusion. Furthermore, I feel I can be a good Wiccan without believing in any particular god/goddess or even in an afterlife. Labels I might apply to my rational beliefs, depending on my mood, are those of atheist (or non-theist), agnostic, deist, or pantheist. Atheist and agnostic are common terms. The atheist does not believe in the existence of a super-natural deity, while the agnostic is not quite sure whether god/goddess does or does not exist. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, meaning that it does not require reference to a higher being. The Unitarian Church has many atheists and agnostics as members. Deists believe a god or primal creative force is out there somewhere. After the initial creation or “big bang,” this primal force stepped back and let the natural forces it created take over. These forces include the winds, the waters, the earth, and sun or fire (the four ancient elements) that endlessly interact to produce the world we know today. In deism, the God (or Goddess) who created the universe does not care if each of us six billion humans has had a good day. Instead, we are left to solve our own problems. Pantheists equate god with nature, but for the rational or scientific pantheist this is more of a metaphoric or symbolic linkage of nature and god rather than a literal belief that nature is Divine.
As a rational person, I believe in imaginary gods as personifications of my subconscious psychological forces. Any visions of gods/goddesses I encounter in my meditative or ritual practices I consider to be projections of my subconscious mind on the external environment. Individually, and sometimes collectively, we humans have hallucinations that some call religious visions.
If the above rational viewpoints covered all of my beliefs, my life would be simpler. However, I also believe that the Earth and its millions of species are too complex to have arisen by pure chance during the past several billion years. When the scientist says that the laws of physics and chemistry explain everything in our world, he/she is right to a certain degree. But who created those laws? Only some primal conscious force could have done this, I believe. Believing in a primal force requires me to switch viewpoints from that of a rational skeptic to a religious mystic. Using my subjective right brain, I try to identify and connect with this primal creative force through my meditations, rituals and even prayers. I become a Pantheist who literally believes that gods and goddesses inhabit Nature. However, my left brain never completely shuts off, so I always remain skeptical about the existence of my supernatural buddies. A constant internal dialogue goes on in my head between the differing rational and mystical perspectives. Fortunately for me, both of these perspectives have merit.
The concept of immanent deity helps me bridge the conflict between the right and left sides of my brain. If deity is truly immanent, a Divine force exists in my subconscious mind as well as in pine trees, rocks and rivers. I just need to look within me to tap into my own internal Divinity.
Is there ever supernatural intervention in our daily lives? Do alleged miracles, prophecies, and visions represent supernatural communications? I believe the answer is yes, if supernatural is equated with the operation of our subconscious minds. Unseen Deities can use serendipity and coincidence to help direct our lives in certain directions.
At several critical points in my life, apparently random events have operated to favorably propel me forward. One important incident, which was apparently a pure coincidence, happened when I was seventeen. A great aunt died, leaving my parents just the amount of money necessary to pay for my first year’s tuition, room and board at the out-of-state university I really wanted to attend; I would not have been able to go otherwise. Another coincidence involved my initial contact with Wicca. Amber K just happened to move from Wisconsin to Los Alamos, rather than to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, or Roswell, at the exact time when I was ready to explore Wicca.
In divination, I have occasionally done a tarot spread that was dead-on. The first time this happened was when I pulled one card from a tarot deck and learned, before being told later that evening, that a young woman who was considering becoming a student with the coven had changed her mind. I don’t remember the card, but it must have been the Death card or something similar. I have no explanation for these coincidences or many others that have happened to me. The rational explanation is that these are just coincidences, just unrelated events, and attributing deeper meaning to them is mystical rubbish.
I began this article with an attack on the beliefs required by most organized religions, and wound up trying to explain my own beliefs. While accepting that a primal unknown force created our universe, I think that the gods and goddesses we worship are largely human inventions. However, I acknowledge that unseen forces beyond my control have helped shape my life through interesting coincidences. I know that I make better decisions when I listen to my inner self and let the ongoing coincidences or synchronicities show me which path I should follow. Some call the subconscious mind I try to listen to the higher self or even the Holy Guardian Angel. I don’t know its name, I just try to follow its advice. Still I remain skeptical about any supernatural events I have not personally experienced. Balancing my rational and mystical tendencies is one of my goals.
This page was downloaded from www.ladywoods.org, the website of the coven of Our Lady of the Woods. It may be used for personal and educational purposes with credit to the author.
Editor’s note: We encourage our readers to take these mid-month meditations as an opportunity to take a short break from everything else. Rather than treating these posts the way you would any other post, set aside 10 minutes someplace quiet and semi-private to have an experience. Take a minute to relax first. After reading the post, take a few minutes to let the experience sink in. If it feels right, leave a comment.
Brendan Myers’s book The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul is like candy for a philosophy lover like me. If philo-sophy is the “love of wisdom”, then I am a lover of the lover of wisdom, a philo-philosophe. And a book of pagan philosophy?! That’s like putting peanut butter together with chocolate! But as much as I loved Myers’ book, I also found it frustrating, and it was not until I reached the end of the book that I realized that Myers intended it to be that way. The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul seems designed to awaken a desire for pagan* philosophy, rather than to satisfy it.
Myers describes the philosophical spirit as one that “regards the world with wonder but also with curiosity and skepticism”. That would be an apt description, I think, of Humanistic or Naturalistic Paganism. Philosophy not only poses the question, but also makes a serious attempt to find answers, writes Myers. The work of philosophy, says Myers, is like “a scientist doing a theologian’s work”.
Anyone who has taken an introductory philosophy class will be familiar with how the thought of one philosopher seems to lead to that of the next, who expands on or challenges (or both) the work of his predecessor. Plato led to Aristotle who led to the Stoics. Kant led to Hegel who led to Nietzsche. The Enlightenment led to Romanticism. Modernity led to Postmodernism. And so on. And this is what I hoped to discover in Myers’ book, the evolution of pagan thought. But I was to be disappointed on that account, through not due to any fault of the author.
Since the first philosophers were pagans like Plato and Cicero, one might think that tracing the development of pagan philosophy would be a simple matter. But it turns out that most of the history of Western philosophy is really Christian. The thread of pagan thought cannot be followed in a continuous line from Plato to the present. Myers explains,
“There has not historically been a continuous pagan community, or continuous pagan intellectual tradition, or the like, which lasted long enough to permit the development, evolution, or even the mere transmission, of pagan ideas.”
Rather, pagan thought erupts unpredictably into the flow of Western (read Christian) philosophy like a repressed, unconscious urge. Rather that an evolution of thought, Myers describes “clusters” of ideas that bear a certain “family resemblance” to each other.
Myers identifies three “elementary ideas” that belong to the family of pagan philosophy: pantheism, Neo-Platonism, and humanism. Each of these corresponds to one of what Myers calls the three great “immensities” which are the subject of all philosophy: the Earth, the Gods**, and the Soul. (Myers names other immensities as well elsewhere: other people, loneliness, death.) Pagan philosophy, writes Myers, is philosophy which reasons about these immensities in a particular way. These elementary pagan ideas emerge naturally from our human existential conditions and our contemplation of the world — our birth to a father and mother, the plants and animals we eat, the air we breathe, the water we bathe in, and the sunlight we feel on our skin. And for this reason, these ideas reoccur again and again in the history of human thought.
Myers’ description of pagan philosophy is itself notable at this time when there exist sharp disagreements among contemporary Pagans about what exactly the word “pagan” means. Myers’ inclusion of humanism as one of the three categories of pagan thought should be of special interest to readers of this blog. Humanism, according to Myers, is the idea that each human being participates in some kind of divinity and that we achieve enlightenment through our own efforts. Conspicuously absent from Myers’ “elementary ideas” is polytheism, which many Pagans today take as the most “elementary” idea of paganism.
Myers then proceeds to describe the history of pagan philosophy in five consecutive “movements”:
- “Brainy Barbarians”, which discusses the druids, the Irish wisdom texts, the Havamal, Pelagianism, and more;
- “Philosophy and the City”, which begins with the pre-Socratics and works its way through the Neo-Platonists to the Renaissance (and Myers doesn’t leave out the female philosophers, Diotima and Hypatia!);
- “Pantheism and the Age of Reason”, which discusses Spinoza and Toland, who are credited as the inventors of pantheism, but also the Transcendentalists and Nietzsche;
- “Resurgence, Reinvention, Rebirth”, which discusses the rise of contemporary Neo-Paganism, from Helena Blavatsky and James Frazer up to Isaac Bonewitz, who passed away in 2010; and
- “Living Voices”, which includes John Michael Greer, Michael York, Gus DiZerega and more.
I appreciated the fact that, while Myers included the recognizable figures like Plato, Emerson, Aleister Crowley, and Starhawk, he did not leave out less familiar names like John Scottus Eriugena, Al Ghazali, Thomas Taylor, John Muir, Schopenhauer, Arne Nesse, and Emma Restall-Orr, many of whom I knew little or nothing about. Myers unfortunately does not have space in his 300 pages to go into much depth about any of these people or their thought, but he does whet the appetite — which I think was his principal intention.
I said that The Earth, the Gods, and the Soul is “frustrating”, but I meant it in a specific sense. Myers’ book awakens in the reader a longing for a pagan philosophical tradition, but it cannot satisfy it, because no such tradition exists. And the reason, according to Myers, is the lack of institutions.
“At least since the year 50 CE, when Emperor Justinian ordered the Platonic philosophy schools to close, pagan philosophy had no institutions to foster or protect it. After that, pagan philosophy, as a distinct tradition of thought, dwindled and disappeared.”
A true philosophical tradition, he explains, is one that addresses the “big questions” of Myers’ immensities, one that uses systematic critical reason, and one that engages other philosophers. But a critical philosophical tradition cannot thrive without the patronage of institutions. Pantheism, Neo-Platonism, and humanism pop up again and again in the history of human thought, but the ideas are rarely developed, and they disappear again after a generation or so, only to pop up somewhere else. Myers’ books is the story of the “reiterations” or repetitions of Pagan ideas, but not their development. The Earth, the Gods, and the Soul makes a compelling case for contemporary pagan institutions, institutions which will create the condition of the possibility of a critical philosophical tradition which will develop and refine pagan ideas for generations to come. Whether not you agree about the need for contemporary Pagan institutions, Myers’ book will is great read for Pagans and non-Pagans, philosophy lovers and non-lovers alike.
* I use the lowercase “pagan” here, as Myers does, intentionally to describe a paganism which includes contemporary Paganism, but also ancient paganisms.
** Polytheists who read Myers’ book will note that Myers’ use of the plural ”Gods” in the title of his book is inconsistent with his description of his second “elementary idea”, Neo-Platonism, which conceives God in the singular form.
Canadian philosopher and writer Brendan Myers is the author of several well-respected books on mythology, folklore, society and politics, ethics, and spirituality. His work is studied by college professors, social activist groups, interfaith groups, Celtic cultural associations, and even Humanist societies, in many countries around the world. In 2008 he received OBOD’s prestigious Mount Haemus award for professional research in Druidry. Since earning his Ph.D in environmental ethics at the National University of Ireland, Galway, he has lectured at several colleges and universities in Ontario, and toured much of Canada and Europe as a public speaker. In his varied career Brendan has also worked as a musician, a labour union leader, a government researcher, an environmentalist, and as a simple country gardener. In addition to The Earth, the Gods, and the Soul, Brendan’s books in print to date include:
- Loneliness and Revelation
- The Other Side of Virtue
- A Pagan Testament
- The Mysteries of Druidry
- Dangerous Religion (out of print)
Brendan is also one of the hosts of Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast.
Bio text courtesy of Brendan Myers’ Facebook page.
John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neopagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He blogs at The Allergic Pagan at Patheos Pagan and Dreaming the Myth Forward at PaganSquare. John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.
Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with B. T. Newberg’s Socratic interrogation of naturalism.
Socrates was known as the gadfly of Athens because he asked the questions no one wanted to answer. While waiting in line for his impiety trial, for example, he struck up a conversation about piety with a priest named Euthyphro. Surely a priest would know what piety is, right? Yet Socrates’ questions revealed a concept Euthyphro thought he understood was actually far more elusive than he’d realized.
In the same way, we naturalists may do well to look into our own favorite concept: naturalism. Do we really understand it as well as we think? If not, what do we stand to gain from unmasking false certainties?
There are numerous definitions of this worldview. Some of them are here. Unfortunately – and I’m not going to mince words here – none of them are very good. The truth is we’ll get more from exploring the ambiguities of the concept than from any definition. By doing so, we’ll learn something about a humble approach to knowledge, a little about seeing from the perspective of other people, and finally, just a bit about ourselves.
Instead of starting with definitions, then, let’s look at the word itself, and work outward from there. You can see right away that it contains the word natural. We naturalists are people concerned with the natural, or nature. We care about what’s real, and we want the way we live to be based not on speculative metaphysics or fantasies, but on what’s really going on.
How do we know what’s real, though? We look to science, which is far and away the most successful means available today for modeling the universe. Yet, there’s something funny about referring to science in this way. Science itself presupposes naturalism, at least in practice. Regardless of what religious ideas the scientist may believe in the privacy of her heart, she does not let them enter into the laboratory. This kind of naturalism – called methodological naturalism – defines science. It seems rather circular to define naturalism by science while defining science by naturalism, doesn’t it?
There’s another kind of naturalism that goes by a variety of names – philosophical or metaphysical or ontological naturalism – which holds that only those things that are in principle discoverable by science are real. There’s something funny here too, though. You can’t prove something doesn’t exist just because you can’t find it using the tools you have, however good those tools might be. The best this kind of naturalism can hope to show is that whatever is not discoverable by science cannot affect causation in our universe, and hence is irrelevant. But that seems like a dodge, doesn’t it? Besides, there’s no escape from circularity here. What’s real is defined by science, and science by what’s real.
Well, if we can’t define what’s real by science, then maybe we should define it by what it isn’t: the supernatural. Gods and ghosts and spirits and souls – all that stuff that requires faith to believe in – all those are what naturalism rejects. True, but on what grounds do we reject them? There is no evidence to support them, we say, but what do we mean by evidence? Ask any religious person why they believe and they will give you evidence – faith-based reasons, intuitive feelings, or even empirical experiences. Yet, we don’t accept those things, because they’re not scientific evidence. Oops, we’re back to circularity again.
The… (giving up)
One could go on like this for quite a while, proposing and striking down arguments, but it gets tiresome rather quickly. It makes you want to throw your hands up like one of Socrates’ frustrated interlocutors. There is a temptation to resort to Justice Potter Stewart’s strategy for defining obscenity: “I know when it when I see it!”
What I want to suggest is that we should neither throw our hands up nor jump to foregone conclusions. Instead, let it be an ongoing process of investigation. There are very few of us naturalists who bother to interrogate our beliefs to the degree we demand from people of faith. If we are not to become hypocrites, we ought to do so. More importantly, though, it’s healthy to examine our beliefs. It sharpens our reason, makes us a bit more humble, and opens a space of compassion for others of different beliefs. Socrates didn’t assume the role of gadfly just to be sadistic. He believed something could be gained from unmasking false certainties.
When we reach the point where we can’t quite define what we believe, and we are tempted to throw our hands up, that is a moment of rational discovery. We see what we thought we knew was not so certain, and we reevaluate who we are and what we know. Further, we’re humbled – just a little – when we see how far we have yet to go in understanding even something so basic as this. Finally, we gain a bit of compassion for others of different beliefs when we realize that the questions on which we differ are by no means easy to answer.
Now, I’m not advocating some warm and fuzzy relativism. I am a naturalist, after all, and I think there are indeed good ways to define naturalism, which I’ve published elsewhere, although in the end I may prove as clueless about naturalism as Euthyphro was about piety. In any case, the important thing is that each person struggle with these questions for themselves.
So, what have we learned? Naturalism is by no means easy to define. It is associated with science, but its relationship to it is more problematic than normally thought. It contrasts with the supernatural, but there too the water gets murky as soon as we look a little closer. Circular reasoning tends to crop up in the most unexpected places. How easy it is to notice flaws in others’ thinking, yet how difficult to see it in our own! Once we do recognize it, though, we come away with enhanced humility, compassion, and self-knowledge.
In the end, what worldview naturalism comes down to, at the very least, is a way of life rooted in reality, with the nature of that reality as an open question. We embrace scientific evidence as the best indicators available today for determining what’s real. Yet, since all facts are liable to being overturned by new evidence, this embrace must be provisional. Moreover, the very bedrock of naturalism can be probed without necessarily proving rock steady. That means we must never ignore the gadfly, that little voice in our heads that asks, like Socrates:
What is naturalism?
P.S. Want to continue the dialogue about naturalism? Leave a comment!
B. T. Newberg founded HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011, and served as managing editor till 2013. His writings on naturalistic spirituality can be found at Patheos, Pagan Square, the Spiritual Naturalist Society, as well as right here on HP.
Since the year 2000, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective. After leaving the Lutheranism of his raising, he experimented with Agnosticism, Buddhism, Contemporary Paganism, and Humanism. Currently he combines the latter two into a dynamic path embracing both science and myth.
In 2009, he completed a 365-day challenge recorded at One Good Deed Per Day. As a Pagan, he has published frequently at The Witch’s Voice as well as Oak Leaves and the podcast Tribeways, and has written a book on the ritual order of Druid organization Ar nDriocht Fein called Ancient Symbols, Modern Rites. He headed the Google Group Polytheist Charity, and organized the international interfaith event The Genocide Prevention Ritual.
Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language. He also researches the relation between religion, psychology, and evolution at www.BTNewberg.com. After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea, B. T. Newberg currently resides in St Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and cat.
B. T. currently serves as the treasurer and advising editor for HP.
To speak with B. T. Newberg, find him on Twitter at @BTNewberg, or contact him here.
This Friday, John Halstead reviews Brendan Myer’s book, The Earth, The Gods and The Soul – A History of Pagan Philosophy: From the Iron Age to the 21st Century.
According to axiarchism, reality is ultimately defined by some kind of value. Axiarchism can be used to support a rational and naturalistic kind of Pagan theology. Part 1 of this article laid out the basic motivations for axiarchism. It showed how to use axiarchism to explain the existence of the Pagan ultimate Deity, the Source of all things. Part 2 continues the development of axiarchism. It solves some of the problems raised in Part 1, and it uses axiarchism to justify the natural existence of a God and Goddess.
A Second Problem with Axiarchism
Axiarchism implies that reality is maximally valuable. Reality is as good as it possibly can be. Reality is the way that it is because that way is the best way it can be. Unfortunately, this leads to a problem. The problem is that the very idea of the best seems impossible. The best is like the biggest. Every number is surpassed by some bigger number. Analogously, every number (every program) is surpassed by some better program. More concretely, if there were any best of all programs (or even many such programs), then running that program would produce the best of all universes. But there isn’t any such thing. Any universe is surpassed by some better universe. Given any universe, you can always define a bigger universe which contains more things with greater intrinsic values of their own. Although intrinsic value doesn’t depend on people, people do have intrinsic values. So any universe can be surpassed by some greater universe which contains more people who reach greater heights of self-realization or flourishing.
To solve this problem, axiarchists can turn to the mathematicians. The problem of the best program is like the problem of the biggest number. But mathematicians don’t define any biggest number. Mathematicians define a sequence of ever bigger numbers. For instance, the first infinite number is defined as the set of all finite numbers. Mathematicians define the counting numbers using two rules. The initial rule states that there exists an initial number zero. The successor rule states that every number is surpassed by a greater successor number. The number n is surpassed by its successor n+1. The first infinite number is the set of all numbers defined by the initial and successor rules.
Axiarchists can adopt this mathematical approach. Just as mathematicians define two laws for making numbers, so axiarchists will define two laws for the actualization of programs. Just as the two mathematical laws define infinity, so these two axiarchic laws define the best. The Selector is still the best. However, just as the meaning of infinity requires a detailed analysis, so also the meaning of the best requires a detailed analysis. According to the Pagan interpretation of axiarchism, this detailed analysis is part of the study of the internal nature of the Source. It is a part of Pagan theology. However, it is not a study of the consequences or manifestations of that divine meaning. This detailed analysis is provided by the initial axiarchic law and the successor axiarchic law.
The Two Axiarchic Laws
The first law is the initial axiarchic law, which involves an initial selector. Just as the initial number is zero. so the initial selector is the property of being least valuable. So the initial axiarchic rule states that for every program, if that program is one of the least valuable programs, then there exists some computer that runs that program. So, all the least valuable things exist. These aren’t bad or awful things. They are just minimally valuable, in the way that a penny is the least valuable type of monetary unit. Pennies aren’t bad, they just aren’t as valuable as nickels, dimes, dollars, or hundred dollar bills.
For axiarchists, the successor law involves a successor selector. Just as the successor rule for numbers defines bigger numbers in terms of smaller numbers, so the successor law for programs defines more valuable programs in terms of less valuable programs. This selector acts on programs that have already been selected. Since any program that has already been selected is running on some program, the successor law acts on those programs. Any program can be modified in many ways. Some of those modifications introduce errors, making the original program less functional or less excellent. Other modifications make the original program more functional or more excellent. The successor law involves a successor selector, which always selects the better versions of any program.
Any modification of a program which makes it better is an improvement. Of course, an improvement of an old program is a new program. If some program is running on some computer, then there are always some ways to improve that program. There are some ways to upgrade it, so that it becomes a better program. A better program generates more value when it gets run. On the basis of these ideas, axiarchists define the successor law like this: for any program running on some computer, for any way to improve that program, there exists some computer that runs that improvement. You can think of improvements as offspring, so that each computer has many better offspring.
These two axiarchic laws define a series of generations of computers, each of which is some concrete thing. The initial generation is the zeroth generation. It contains all the computers running the least valuable programs. The first generation contains all the computers running improvements of programs running in the zeroth generation. These are slightly better programs which, when run, generate more valuable things. But computers in the first generation are now surpassed by computers in the second generation. And so it goes. Each next generation contains all the computers running improvements of all the programs in the previous generation. If you think of improvements as offspring, then each least good computer in the zeroth generation serves as the root of a genealogical tree. Concrete reality is all the computers in all these generations. It is a forest of trees.
The axiarchic laws define a cyclical process of creation in which computers beget computers. The biological analogy is appropriate, since the programs running on these computers are analogous to genetic codes, and they reproduce like asexual organisms. The axiarchic laws define an evolutionary algorithm. This is evolution by rational selection. Rational selection ensures that there is an arrow of value. Along any lineage of computers, the value of the computation increases. So there are two patterns in this axiarchic process of creation. The first is the circle while the second is the arrow. These are entirely natural patterns in the expression of the power of the Source. They are manifestations of that power. If that power is divine, then these patterns are also divine.
Axiarchism and the Pagan God and Goddess
Although these individual computers all reproduce asexually (and, indeed, their reproduction is really only a purely logical process), the circle and the arrow are emergent patterns of the entire process. One way to interpret these emergent patterns, which is consistent with some versions of Paganism, is to think of the circle as a feminine pattern and the arrow as a masculine pattern. This interpretation is obviously based on well-known features of human and animal sexuality. Of course, you might object that these features are superficial, and far from biologically universal. Here the correct reply is that this sexual interpretation of these powers is an example of analogical predication, which has long been used in Western theology. We use analogies and metaphors to refer to the divine aspects of reality, in order to be able to understand them better and to relate to them more intimately.
On this sexual interpretation, the circle is the Goddess while the arrow is the God. And this means that the Goddess and God are not supernatural people. They are not concrete things that somehow live in outer space. They are not merely things among things. Rather, they are ways in which divine power makes itself manifest in the production of concrete things. These two divine powers are far deeper than any type of personality. Obviously enough, sexuality itself is deeper than any type of personality. Most organisms that reproduce sexually are not people. And, even within people, sexuality is an impersonal force. But perhaps sexuality is far too crude in this context. A more abstract approach, which is also therefore deeper, treats the masculine and feminine as expressions of the polarity of love. As the axiarchic laws express their power, two perfectly harmonized poles of action emerge; these poles can be thought of analogically as a divine loving couple.
One of the religiously relevant consequences of this computational axiarchism is that the axiarchic laws apply to all computations. Universes are computations, but so are protons and pulsars and planets and puppies and people. The circle and the arrow are patterns at work in the generation of all these computations. To use some older theological language, these patterns are immanent in all computations. Your body is a computation, so the circle and arrow brought it into existence, and are active within it. The Goddess and God are at work in your brain and body, in every cell in your body, in every molecule in every cell, every atom in every molecule, every particle in every atom, all the way down, however far down it goes. Of course, these patterns are active in all natural things.
Axiarchism and Naturalistic Paganism
For Naturalistic Pagans, this means that religious symbols and rituals are ways of becoming more intimately aware of the natural powers in our bodies. The Wheel of the Year illustrates these powers at work. The sun represents the arrow while the earth represents the circle. The arrow rises and falls; but the circle always renews the arrow. These powers, the Goddess and God, are directly active in our lives, from particles up through the atoms and so on, all the way up to our brains and bodies. These are powers that inspire rather than coerce. The circle urges us forward while the arrow urges us upwards. Working together, these powers ensure that every human life is a wheel that rolls uphill.
Your present life is a computation which can be improved in many ways. The successor law implies that your life will be surpassed in every possible way. And so your life is surpassed by other lives. These are your better future lives. Where do they live? Not in our universe, which is already running its own program. Your better future lives will run in better future universes. Many Pagans already subscribe to some type of reincarnation theory, and axiarchism leads to a naturalistic conception of reincarnation.
This reincarnation theory involves many lives in many universes. Karma is just the system of ethical rules which maps lives on to lives. This concept of reincarnation even involves a naturalistic definition of the soul. This definition is as old as Aristotle, and it is always surprising that more people do not refer to it. On this Aristotelian definition, the soul is the form of the body. The soul is to the body as a program is to a computer. Your soul is a number running on your body. But your body is already a number running on some network of deeper computations. All of this is perfectly naturalistic. It is consistent with our best science. It involves nothing paranormal or occult. On the contrary, the logical and mathematical aspects of axiarchism rigorously exclude all superstition.
Axiarchism leads to a very rich concept of nature. Just as mathematicians have defined transfinite numbers and other transfinitely complex mathematical structures, so axiarchists can take their concepts of programs and improvements into the transfinite. Nature is an absolutely infinitely rich totality of ever better computations. Although no universe is the best of all possible universes, nature itself is the best of all possible totalities. Anselm said that the Abrahamic God is that than which no greater is possible; but the axiarchist says that nature is that than which no greater is possible. Nature is so rich that every part of nature is simulated by some other part of nature. It is so rich that any definition of nature merely describes some smaller part of nature. Mathematically speaking, this means nature satisfies reflection principles. Nature has the status of a proper class. Nature is the pleroma, the unsurpassable manifestation of divine power. It is the unfolding of the meaning enfolded in the ultimate sufficient reason, which is the Source of all things.
Resources: An early version of axiarchism is presented in Leibniz’s essay, “On the ultimate origination of the universe”. You can find it in many editions of his works. One of the first modern approaches to axiarchism is by Nicholas Rescher, in his book The Riddle of Existence. Sadly, it’s out of print. John Leslie gives a very accessible presentation of his axiarchism in his book Immortality Defended. He gives a more detailed and technical presentation of his axiarchism in his book Infinite Minds.
Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. He is the author of four books, including the forthcoming Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death. He is currently working on naturalistic foundations for Paganism, linking Wicca to traditional Western philosophy. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He resides with his wife in New York City. He loves New England and the American West, and enjoys all types of hiking and biking, chess, microscopy, and photography.
This Wednesday, we hear from B. T. Newberg: “The Gadfly: A Socratic Interrogation of Naturalism”.
Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with Eric Steinhart’s discussion of Axiarchism and Paganism. This essay is broken into two parts. In Part 1, which is posted today, Eric Steinhert lays out the basic motivations for axiarchism. In Part 2, which will be posted tomorrow, Eric discusses how axiarchism can be used to rationally justify the natural existence of a Pagan God and Goddess.
Axiarchism is a philosophical theory which states that reality is ultimately defined by some kind of value. Axiarchism has ancient roots. It starts with Plato, then gets taken up by Plotinus. It becomes further developed by Leibniz. Most recently, it’s been advocated by two living philosophers, Nicholas Rescher and John Leslie.
Axiarchism is flexible enough to be interpreted in several ways. I’ll develop one way here which is both Pagan and naturalistic. This interpretation of axiarchism includes various divine principles. If you like, you can refer to them as deities, as gods and goddesses. But these divine principles are not supernatural people. On the contrary, they are natural powers. They are patterns of natural activity. But natural doesn’t mean material or physical. For the axiarchist, nature is much deeper and much bigger than any material or physical reality. Everything said here is perfectly consistent with our best science. But consistency with our best science doesn’t entail the kind of extreme and often unjustified skepticism that unfortunately typically gets associated with naturalism.
Platonism and Mathematics
Axiarchism starts with a Platonic theory of existence. Platonists say that mathematical objects, such as numbers, really exist. For Platonists, numbers are not concepts in your head and they are not symbols written down on paper. Numbers exist whether or not anybody ever thinks of them. Thus numbers exist objectively. Numbers exist whether or not any physical things exist. They are independent of any physical reality, and they do not exist in any space or time. They exist eternally. Likewise, numbers don’t depend on any other things for their existence. They exist necessarily.
Some current physicists, like Max Tegmark, argue that all reality is purely mathematical. Tegmark is a Pythagorean. But Platonists (and therefore axiarchists) don’t think that everything is mathematical. Besides numbers, physical things exist. Physical things are defined by mathematical things. Mathematical things serve as the forms or templates of physical things. Mathematical things provide physical things with their shapes and structures. Physical things are examples or instances of mathematical patterns. Hence they are said to exemplify or to instantiate mathematical essences. But how?
One way to think about the relation between the mathematical and the physical, between the abstract and the concrete, is based on computers. Of course, this appeal to computation is mainly (but not entirely) metaphorical; these computers are not like the devices we have on our desks. We could avoid this computer metaphor by using lots of technical philosophical and mathematical jargon. For example, we could talk about bare particulars instead of computers. Since we want to avoid that, we’ll just talk about computers.
The computational interpretation of Platonism starts by treating numbers as programs. Every number can be expressed as a series of binary digits, a sequence of zeros and ones. But a series of binary digits is just a program for a computer. So the distinction between the abstract and the concrete is like the distinction between software and hardware. Numbers are abstract programs which can be run by concrete computers. When some computer runs a number, a physical thing comes into existence. The nature of this physical thing is defined by the number. The physical things running on these computers might be as small as quarks or as big as entire universes or systems of universes.
Platonists have long argued that mathematical objects exist necessarily. They cannot fail to exist; it would be impossible for them not to exist. But not so for concrete things. They are not necessary; on the contrary, they are contingent. Any concrete thing might not exist; it might fail to exist. Concrete things don’t have to exist. So, why are there any concrete things at all? Why are there any physical things at all? This is a famous question, first raised by Leibniz: why is there something rather than nothing? More precisely, why is the set of concrete things populated rather than empty? There needs to be some explanation for the existence of any physical things at all. The explanation can’t be causal. After all, causes are physical. It has to be a deeper kind of explanation.
Axiarchists have argued that the best explanation for the existence of any concrete things involves a natural Law. This Law is deeper than any physical law, and it provides the reason or explanation for the existence of concrete things. This Law logically brings all physical things into existence. It is the ultimate sufficient reason for the existence of any physical things, including our universe as well as any other universes that exist. Philosophers (like Leibniz) have given many arguments that there must be some ultimate sufficient reason lying behind all concrete things. The success of science (which depends on finding reasons in nature) has been used to justify the existence of this ultimate sufficient reason.
The truth of this ultimate Law is the power that brings all concrete things into being. If nature is the totality of all concrete things, then this truth is the ultimate natural power, the power which produces nature itself. Many theologians have thought of this kind of power as divine. Axiarchists like Plato, Plotinus, and Leslie have explicitly referred to this power as divine. Of course, this power is not personal. It is not the Abrahamic God or any other personal deity. This power is an impersonal force, which emanates or erupts from the Law. The Law is the divine Source of concrete existence (a Source which exists prior to any concrete things). Many Pagans have posited an ultimate Deity, a divine Source which serves as the ground of nature. If axiarchism is given a Pagan interpretation, then the ultimate Law is this Source, and its truth is the divine power which it emanates. But this Source is not a thing. Rather, it is the abstract reason for all things. It is like a mathematical axiom, except that it is deeper than every mathematical axiom. It is the ground of things.
Selectors and the Computational Interpretation
Of course, while this theology may be interesting, it does not help to clarify the meaning of the Law. What might this ultimate Law look like? Any such Law has to start with purely abstract objects and end with some concrete things. It has to be a Law that entails that concrete things exist. The contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit uses the concept of a Selector to define this law. His reasoning can be summarized like this: Numbers have various features. For instance, some numbers are even while others are odd. Some are prime while others are divisible. The Selector acts like a filter on numbers. Those numbers that pass through the Selector serve as the programs for concrete things. On this view, the ultimate Law looks like this: For any number, if that number passes through the Selector, then there exists some computer which runs that number as its program.
How would this Law work to create physical things? Suppose the Selector is the property of being prime. Prime numbers pass through the Selector. This means that for every number, if that number is prime, then some computer exists which runs that number as its program. Since there are some prime numbers, there are some computers which run them as their programs. This Law entails the existence of physical things. It explains why there are some physical things rather than none. However, this Law does not cause any physical things to exist; on the contrary, it logically implies that they exist.
Of course, the notion that primeness is the Selector is far too easy. But we know that some numbers, when run on computers, define physical systems like cellular automata. The game of life is a well-known example. So the Selector might be the property of defining a cellular automaton. If that’s right, then the Law looks like this: for any number, if that number defines a cellular automaton, then there exists some computer which runs that number as its program. Some cellular automata contain internal patterns of activity which are self-reproducing structures. So the Selector might be the property of defining a cellular automaton which contains internal self-reproducing patterns.
Some cellular automata contain internal patterns which are capable of universal computation. These internal patterns are universal Turing machines. So the Selector might entail the existence of computations which run internal computations. Computations can be stacked on top of computations. Computations running on top of other computations are often referred to as virtual machines. Perhaps the most fundamental quantum mechanical processes in our universe are basic computations. Things like protons are virtual machines stacked on those lower-level computations. Things like atoms and molecules are higher level virtual machines stacked on top of lower level machines. If this is right, then human brains and bodies are very high-level virtual machines. But virtual machines, no matter how high, are still computations that fall under the laws of computing.
A Problem with Axiarchism
According to this computational interpretation, axiarchism provides an explanation for the existence of physical things, including our universe and all the things running inside of it. But this version of axiarchism has problems. It involves a Law based on some selector. One problem with the notion of a Law based on a Selector is that almost any Selector seems arbitrary. Why this Selector rather than some other Selector? If the Law is the ultimate sufficient reason for all things, then the Law itself can’t involve any arbitrariness. What selects the Selector? If the Selector is the reason for things, what is the reason for the Selector? It seems the Selector depends on some deeper Super-Selector, which then depends on some Super-Duper-Selector, and so it goes. The result is an endless regression of Selectors, which leaves the whole system powerless.
Fortunately, axiarchists can provide a solution to the problem of the regress of Selectors. They argue that the only way to avoid arbitrariness is for the Selector to be the best. On this view, every program generates some goodness or excellence when it is run. Programs can therefore be ranked according to how much goodness they generate. Goodness doesn’t mean human pleasure. It doesn’t even have anything to do with people (after all, universes don’t need to include people, and for a long time, even our universe didn’t include any people). For axiarchists, goodness is an objective property of programs. Goodness is intrinsic value, the value any thing has just because of its nature. Thus every number has some degree of intrinsic value, which it produces if it runs on a computer.
Programs (numbers) have different degrees of intrinsic value. Some are better than others. Perhaps some of these programs are better than all others. They are the best of all possible programs. Axiarchists now say that the Selector is the property of being the best. This Selector is not arbitrary. Given any set of options or choices, it’s rational to select the best and irrational to select anything less than the best. Moreover, this is a necessary property of rationality: reason necessarily selects the best. So the Selector selects itself. Why is the Selector the property of being the best? Because the property of being the best is itself the best property. The best Selector is the property of being the best. The self-selection of the best means that the infinite regress of Selectors never gets started.
Axiarchism implies that reality is maximally valuable. Reality is as good as it possibly can be. Reality is the way that it is because that way is the best way it can be. Unfortunately, this leads to a problem. Part 2 will show how axiarchists solve this problem, and it will continue the development of axiarchism. Part 2 will also show how axiarchism can be used to rationally justify the natural existence of a Pagan God and Goddess. Axiarchism can therefore serve as the logical foundation for a rich Pagan theology.
Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. He is the author of four books, including the forthcoming Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death. He is currently working on naturalistic foundations for Paganism, linking Wicca to traditional Western philosophy. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He resides with his wife in New York City. He loves New England and the American West, and enjoys all types of hiking and biking, chess, microscopy, and photography.