On the “Spiritual Aspect of Reality” and Pantheism

     [This is a letter of July 12th, 2002, that I sent to Emily, a friend of mind, in response to some comments she made about religion and pantheism to another friend (Kirby). I have edited it slightly, and added a couple sentences, to clarify my meaning.   —S.H.]

[Emily wrote:]

>  Many religious people - especially in the religions I listed in my
>  original message - don’t think of God as the guy in the sky (a ridiculous
>  idea, I agree) but as the spiritual aspect of reality, that which enables us
>  to experience with awe the oneness of all being. In this conception, God is
>  inside each of us as well as in every other aspect of existence and in a
>  sense IS existence as a whole. If you’ve never experienced this, it’s going
>  to sound as ridiculous to you as the guy in the sky - but it doesn’t in any
>  way contradict science, and I’m pretty certain this conception of God has
>  done a lot more good than harm. This kind of belief is usually not based on
>  faith but on direct experience. I would place the number of people
>  worldwide who have this kind of belief in the millions.

Hi Emily and everybody—

      I find the religious views you presented above fascinating. Without trying to offend you in any way I would like to try to analyze these views from my materialist perspective, and see what you think about such an analysis.

      There seem to be two main points to your view:

  1. God is not an old man with a beard in the sky, but rather some spiritual something-or-other “within us”.
  2. Pantheism, i.e., God is in every aspect of existence, or even that God “IS existence as a whole”.

      The first view is a popular one among religious liberals, and one which my mother has sometimes expressed. The second has apparently been held by several prominent philosophers, including Spinoza and Einstein. (“Einstein often has said to me, ‘I am more a philosopher than a physicist.’” —Leopold Infeld) There really are two separate views here, and it is possible to hold one and not the other. However, they also seem compatible, at least on the most usual interpretation of the second view. If “all that exists” is viewed simply in a materialist way, with no “spiritual component”, then you could still say that “God is the sum total of all that exists”, but this would amount to no more than giving the Universe another name.

      In short, the most essential element of both views is the concept of “spirit”, or—as you say—“the spiritual aspect of reality”. So some important questions to address here are: Just what is this thing “spirit”? What exactly is it supposed to be? What is the evidence for its existence? Where and how did the concept arise? Are there alternative materialist explanations for the phenomena that the concept of “spirit” is adduced to explain? Is the concept of “spirit” a scientific one, an antiscientific one, or completely “unrelated” to a scientific view of the world?

      Let me start with a summary of where and how the concepts of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ arose. Surprisingly enough, most of this has been determined, through both historical records (ancient Latin and Greek documents especially) and through some “historical linguistics” (investigations into the evolution of languages and the origin of certain words). Some of the following is taken from my old essay “On the Analogy Between Mind/Brain and Software/Hardware”, which is posted on my web site.

      The modern concept of ‘spirit’ derives from the ancient Proto-Indo-European word *bhes- which just meant “breath”. In fact, it is thought that this word came from imitating the sound of a heavy breath (onomatopoeia). (The dash at the end of the word means that the ending varied with the grammatical context, since Proto-Indo-European was a highly inflected language. The asterisk means that this word, like all other Proto-Indo-European words, has been reconstructed by the comparison of cognates in the various daughter languages, and is not directly attested to since Proto-Indo-European did not exist in a written form.)

      *bhes-, in its grammatical form *bhsukh-, became via the standard phoneme shifts psukhein (meaning “to breathe”) in ancient Greek. From this came the Greek word psukhe or psyche, which meant not only “breath”, but already by the time of Homer, also the breath-like animating force which left the body at death and continued to exist for a while as a “shade” or “shadow”. You can see how this notion came about: when someone dies, they stop breathing, their breath, their psyche, their life, “leaves them”.

      Later, in the religious rites of the Greek god of wine and nature, Dionysus, the psyche was reinterpreted for the first time as “a principle superior to the body, and imprisoned within it”. Only with Plato (or possibly Socrates) did this “life force” or “spirit” become viewed as an “immortal soul”. Thus we see the gradual transformation of a physical thing (breath) into a mystical, religious thing (soul). Many modern English words related to the mind and/or “soul”, such as ‘psychology’, evolved from psyche. [This information on the history of the concept of psyche and ‘soul’ is taken from Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1985), and W. L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion (1980).]

      The word ‘spirit’, specifically, comes more directly from the Latin spiritus, which also meant “breath”, and from the verb spiritare, which meant “to blow or breathe”. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., gives as its first meaning for spirit “an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms”. In other words, the word itself encapsulates and expresses a particular philosophical theory, which is usually known as “vitalism”. This theory is that the complicated organization of matter into physical beings (including brains), through evolution, is not enough to bring about life. Something “more” must be added in, namely “spirit”. The concept of ‘spirit’ thus competes with, and disagrees with, the science of biology—which posits no such thing as spirit as being necessary for life or thinking.

      It is in fact clear that this concept of spirit is a pre-scientific concept, and an antiscientific concept. At one time it was not possible to explain the difference between living organisms and dead matter scientifically, and so magical concepts like “spirit” were invented. Now that biological science can pretty much explain this difference, at least in its essentials, such magical, pre-scientific concepts are completely superfluous, and—more than that—clearly antiscientific.

      The way pantheists use the terms ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual aspect of reality’ appears to distance themselves from this scientifically discredited theory of vitalism. In fact, instead of saying with the ancients that there is this something-or-other, “spirit”, that animates some matter and not other matter (dead matter), pantheists seem to want to say something like, “well ok, there is not this spirit stuff that makes the difference between dead and alive, but there is this more abstract spirit stuff that nevertheless is part of everything, dead or alive.” It is hard for me to see the motive here, however. Vitalism actually made more sense than this universal spiritualism. Vitalism at least was trying to explain what was then a mystery—what makes something be alive? So what exactly is pantheism trying to explain? It seems to me that it is simply trying to hang on to an old discredited pre-scientific idea in a more abstract form. People can’t let go of their fantasies; the best they can do is try to pretty them up—which, among intellectuals, means making them more abstract and obscure.

      The real motive behind all this ‘spiritual aspects of reality’ stuff has nothing to do with any part of the world except human beings. There is not the slightest reason for believing that “spirit” pervades rocks and hammers and nails, for example, nor even the spiciest slice of pizza. What people are really talking about are their own religious and emotional experiences, sometimes inspired by sunsets and natural beauty, emotions which they then gratuitously expand to fill the whole universe.

      You are right, Emily, to emphasize this centrality of religious emotion, or internal “experience”. But the question is, are you correctly interpreting the true nature of these experiences? Do you really understand what you are experiencing?

      No one doubts that people sometimes have internal religious, or quasi-religious emotional experiences. I have had them myself, both when I was religious, and once in a while to this day. I even know how to bring them on. One way (for me) is to drink a couple beers late at night when I am quite tired, and put on Sidney Bechet’s recording of “Sleepy Time Down South”. Mahalia Jackson’s recording of “Come Sunday” with Duke Ellington’s orchestra works too, though the explicit religious theme has nothing to do with it. Even we atheists understand emotional ecstasy (or what the fundamentalist “Holy Rollers” call “rapture”). But we don’t attribute it to God, or to some universal spiritual aspect of reality. We attribute it to the state of our body and mind, and to the methods of inducing it, such as loneliness, exhaustion, lack of food, or to drugs (alcohol in my case), or the “excruciating ecstasy” (in Ellington’s words) of Johnny Hodges’ saxophone, to some particularly wonderful aspect of nature (such as an overview of the Grand Canyon or a magnificent sunset), or to a woman so beautiful that she makes you shiver. The exact recipe is slightly different for every human being. But throwing in “God” or “spirit” on top of this adds nothing whatsoever. That is only a primitive misattribution.

      You say that this direct religious experience which you, and most other people, experience or have experienced at one time or another, does not contradict science. And indeed the experience itself does not. But the religious interpretations which you and others (including me in my youth) put on these experiences does contradict science. Science is a collection of theories and explanations about the world (including human society and individual human beings) and how all these things work—which we arrive at, and test, in a special way (“scientific method”). There are scientific theories and explanations for even the most heartfelt human emotions and internal “experiences”—and the scientific explanation for such things has nothing whatsoever to do with gods and spirits. To imagine that the source of such feelings is God or “spirit” is to accept a primitive, pre-scientific explanation for what is going on within you.

      The “awe” of “the oneness of all being” is one such more abstract expression for what was once simply called the spirit of God. Many modern religious people, such as yourself, are no longer able to view “God” the way that most human beings did a few thousand years ago—as a superpowerful human-like agency. Thus the need to come up with abstract philosophical conceptions of God as “existence” or “the oneness of all being”. Such phrases are, however, totally incoherent. When I paint a painting (no matter how bad!) it is I who have created something—not “God”, not some “universal spirit”. Bringing something into existence does not require gods or spirits. When I throw up on the floor I create a mess; that is, a new mess has come into “existence”. Has this expanded God? If God is the sum-total of all existence, I guess it does!

      Modern religious people know that they cannot rationally analyze their own abstract theological philosophies, and seldom even try to do so. (When they try, no one else can understand them.) So all they do is settle on a few phrases such as “the oneness of all being”, whatever that is supposed to mean, and when challenged, say things such as “you have to feel this the way I do”. But from a scientific materialist perspective that simply will not do. There are rational, scientific explanations for what is going on with human beings who say and believe that they are experiencing “God”, and God and spirit have nothing at all to do with those explanations.

      I know it is always risky to criticize a person’s deeply held religious views, and I hope you are not too upset with me. But we are in a science discussion group, and we are all sophisticated intelligent people, so I think we can try to approach even religion from a scientific perspective. Anyway, I would be happy to hear and consider your response to all that I have said above.

         (Edited 1/2/03)

“If God dwells inside us, like some people say, I sure hope
He likes enchiladas, because that’s what He’s getting!”
    —A “Deep Thought” from Jack Handey

— End —

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