Thinking Through Atheism in a Religious Cosmos (response to professoranton)

Like Professor Anton, I would also want to pose the existential problematic of self-consciousness to those atheists who reject religion outright. If religion arose naturally as a result of humanity’s gradually increasing capacity for self-consciousness, and by implication, for conscience, then what are we secular folks supposed to replace it with? We cannot simply expect all our guilt to disappear with the churches if the churches and their rituals arose in the first place as a response to the guilt-inducing effects of our undeniable feeling of being free (more or less if not absolutely so). To deny that consciousness is a real feature of the universe, as many atheistic scientific materialists are tempted to do, is just a cop out, another psychological ploy no better than the old religions that allows them to avoid having to directly face the terrifying reality of feeling ethically responsible to a community of other moral agents. The question is not whether we should be done with religion or not. We cannot be done with religion. The question is rather “what sort of religion are we to make, now that we are conscious of our need to do so?”
In his wonderful little book Religion in the Making, Whitehead writes:
“In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. Religion is world-loyalty.”
Whitehead was a religious man, but his vision of God was intimately wed to his vision of the universe. His religion, in other words, was fully cosmologically, loyal to the real universe as we experience it (and therefore not beholden to supernatural beings beyond our experience). To the extent that Anton shares my Whiteheadian desire for a worldly religion, our unorthodox positions in the theism vs. atheism debate run together. But, as we’ve made explicit before, we part ways when it comes to the question of agency’s place in the cosmos. I defend a panexperientialist ontology, while Anton’s position seems to float somewhere between physicalist emergentism and a sort of Kantian transcendental vitalism. On the one hand, he wants to accept the scientific materialist version of the story, whereby the agential qualities of life and mind are said to have emerged (contingently or necessarily, he can’t be sure) out of an originally non-agential matter, while on the other hand he wants to deny that temporality can precede the emergence of living organisms (making it impossible to understand how non-living matter could have “preceded” life). Maybe I am misinterpreting Anton’s aims, but I don’t see how these two positions can hang together coherently. Like Steven Shaviro, I’d argue that the only two coherent positions remaining after traditional theism has been dismissed are eliminative materialism and some sort of panpsychism.
Rather than trying to imagine (since I’m not at all convinced it can be coherently imagined) that time, and with it the experience of agency, emerged with the first living cells, I defend the thesis that temporality is a real feature of the universe at every scale of its organization, including the physical. Not only living organisms, but every self-organizing physical system brings forth some kind of temporal experience. The temporal experience (and so the degree of agency) of a system varies depending on its form and level of complexity. The vast majority of experiential systems are non-conscious and so their agency is extremely limited. As the cosmos proceeds up the evolutionary chain of becoming from physical, to vegetable, to animal forms of organization, the degrees of freedom and agency increase exponentially. In the human being, time can become conscious of itself at last as a moving image of eternity. In this experience of what Deleuze called the “temporally eternal,” human beings discover their greatest blessing and their greatest curse: freedom itself.
Schelling defines freedom, not as an attribute of the human self (as though I have freedom and can wield it with my will), but as the unruly chasm that continually erupts from the ground of our existence as a result of the tension between good and evil: I am simply the freedom to decide between the two, and I maintain my identity only by continuing to decide again and again, eternal moment by eternal moment. I do not have freedom; freedom has me. Religion emerges from this tensional experience of self-conscious freedom as an attempt to help us cope. But it is not here that human beings become most unlike the rest of the cosmos; rather, it is here that we reveal our consciousness to be continuous with the rest of the cosmos. The same conflict of centripetal (gravity) and centrifugal (light) forces that allows a star to temporarily forge its identity, at a higher power allows a human being to form its.

9 Replies to “Thinking Through Atheism in a Religious Cosmos (response to professoranton)”

  1. Why do you assume the need of a replacement to begin with? Why do you assume we are supposedly ‘guilty’? Guilty of freedom? Guilty of being born? If you’re going with this tack then why not return to Shame rather than Guilt? Shame before all those others for whom I compete to survive? Jean Delumeau in his magisterial Sin and Fear – The Emergence of Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries once termed this sense of guilt as the “scruple sickness” instigated by the Catholic (obviously the main religion of the era in question) turn toward introspection and moral enforcement or hygiene. Once you impose a moral code, a set of rules on a community and those go against the natural state of affairs conflict arises which stems the flow of natural aggression. This blockage of natural aggression turned against itself is the beginnings of guilt culture. I’ll not go into the antecedents and also realize this is a simplification of an argument that would take a full detailed work to explicate.

    I do not know of any atheists who deny consciousness as a feature of the universe. Even the most blatant eliminativist does not deny consciousness, what they do deny is the permanent implantation of this notion of the first-person-singular, the ‘I’ as Self. Instead they say that it is a mechanism, a function of the brain’s processes just like all other functions, that it comes and goes as needed for specific actions. What eliminativists deny is this notion of capacities and dispositions as existing eternally in consciousness. There are no permanent power, dispotifs, emotions etc. as permanent entities, instead what is taken as the label for all intentional states of affairs is in itself momentary functional process of the brain’s continuous biochemical interactions with the environment.

    This notion that “I do not have Freedom, Freedom has me,” seems a perfect example of statement “I do not have Self, Brain is.” The difference between the two statements is the difference between Idealism and Materialism. Freedom is Idea, Brain is Material. You assume the Idea of Freedom is real, that it has real capacity, that it stands for certain modes, capacities, powers, dispotifs that have causal efficacy. For me freedom has none of these, it is an illusion of the Brain doing what it does in a material universe. But that does not divide material into some old mold of an outdated materialism that sees matter as dead. That materialism never existed, that was always a critical appraisal of materialism by its detractors. Materialism is a monism, but does not reduce everything to the physical as some physicalists did during the positivist era. If one studies to the full extent the complete history of materialism one discovers that at the heart of this unique view of life is a sense of openness to existence that need not be final. Existence is not a set of algorithms, neither is it mathematical, nor is it even bound to the term ‘matter’. As in all human thought the moment you qualify the real by such terms you reduce what cannot be reduced to a human equation. We do have limits, we are blind to our own capacities. We take as sufficient what is actually our own ignorance of the true state of affairs. We scramble for definitions, philosophical theories, scientific facts to sway to argue to bind the real to our Ideas of reality. Reality escapes all our human notions. To use a religious metaphor in a secular way (Paul): “We see through a mirror darkly…”. That is all. What little light we shed of this real is always up for revision as we gain more insight and better tools or apparatuses by which to understand it. An open universe is infinite in this sense. Why? Because it does not follow our rules, it invents its own moment by moment (to use an occasionalist or Whiteheadian metaphor). But this need not entail even a reduction to some Big Other behind the scenes causing those relations between moments. To reduce the mystery to either a secular or religious notion is still to equate the real to human need. The universe does not need us, yet we do. That is all.

    1. Thanks for your comment… I am building on Prof. Anton’s understanding of guilt as he unpacks it in his video. He is building mostly on Ernest Becker’s work. Anton has published quite a bit on this question, as well (see for ex. his “Sources of Significance”).

      I think many atheists with a scientific materialist bent do deny consciousness as a REAL feature of the universe. Seeing consciousness as epiphenomenal or even as somehow contingently emergent from an otherwise entirely non-experiential (i.e., non-temporal) material is, to my mind, a denial of its reality. Consciousness cannot be entirely denied, since it is the basis of our everyday experience, and so it comes to be understood as an illusion. I think eliminativism is at least a logically coherent position given the fact that the alternative position of relying on “emergence” to explain how mind can come from matter is no better than referring to a miracle, as the Catholics do when they say evolution went about its business until God decided to insert souls into Homo sapiens. But despite this logical coherence, eliminativism entirely fails the pragmatic experiential test. We all experience ourselves as conscious agents, and even if we give our abstract theories of the causal mechanisms that must underly this experience explanatory priority, we still have to account for the illusion of said experience. This is no easy task. Simply claiming that consciousness is an illusion is not a solution to the hard problem; the problem remains in a new form: How is the illusion or appearance of consciousness possible in what should be (based on the classical understanding of matter) just a dead mechanical process of electrochemical interaction? I wouldn’t claim that there is anything eternal about the structure of consciousness. I think consciousness is a process, not a substance. It emerged in evolutionary time from simpler forms of experience.

      Freedom is not an idea. I was not trying to suggest this. Following Schelling and Whitehead, I’d want to root freedom in the creativity of nature. The human experience of freedom is just a becoming conscious of what had always been at work in the creative evolution of the universe. This view of freedom totally undermines the liberal idea of a rational individual which has freedom as one of its capabilities. Part of what it means to be free is to exist in ineradicable tension between the desire to merge with the other and to withdraw from the other. We are free dividuals, not free individuals.

      1. Ah, Becker was always interesting for this revision of Freud and Marxian theory, and was a true product of his age or circumscribed within a particular epistemic horizon. His book on Escape from Evil has great insights… and, yes, his sense of guilt was built out of mimetic theories and sacrifice, etc. This I understand.

        True hard core physicalists did attempt this denial of consciousness, but in mainstream neurosciences as against philosophy of mind this notion is a dead duck. We know consciousness is produced, and we know that even what we term the first-person-singular exists, but just not as we once believed: instead of pre-existent, or essentialist theories in neurosciences it is seen not as epiphenomenon (which has emergentist notions), but as function or mechanism that is produces on the fly as temporary element in the ongoing process of consciousness rather than some permanent entity or substantive thing situated in a physical space in the mind.

        Yes, I understand your referring back to Whitehead and even Bergson and the “creative evolution of the universe”, and I can even see this notion in some current quantum gravity theoretic (Lee Smolin, etc.). Yet, this is to still put a telos spin to the universe as a living whole; a holistic return to Aristotelian conceptions and that whole tradition which I would question. But that is another tale… I can understand where you are coming from…

        I admit I was not meaning to be harsh on your per se, but was just trying to clarify my own atheistic stance coming out of a long multiple year struggle out of a very apocalyptic grounding in Southern Baptist ideology as a child and young adult. Viet Nam changed that. Took years of work to overcome this… but that, too, in another tale.

        Thanks for the response… I do wish sometimes that I could actually accept these notions that are as you show on your blog actually very beautiful and elegant. But it is hard to mesh with my materialist heritage… yet, I continue to read and study those who do cherish such visions… such as yourself.

      2. noir, I would want to differentiate my position (here, for ex.: https://footnotes2plato.com/2012/12/10/table-of-contents-physics-of-the-world-soul-the-relevance-of-alfred-north-whiteheads-philosophy-of-organism-to-contemporary-scientific-cosmology/) from what you describe as “a holistic return to Aristotelian conceptions” concerning a teleological universe “as a living whole.” It is important in the context of a process-relational ontology of the sort I’ve tried to defend to avoid conceiving of the universe as a simple whole or unified system. It is not as though the universe is a completed whole or self-enclosed system. I’m no pantheist. You might call me a panentheist, but let’s not get lost in word games. I’d describe the universe or pluriverse (neither quite gets it right) as an open-ended work-in-process, an ongoing project, an open wound striving to heal itself even as it continues to tear itself open from the inside out. Its an ouraboric monstrosity more than a simple cosmic organism. But despite its incompletion and plurality, it has managed to more or less hang together, not because of any necessity (divinely or logically imposed), but because of something far more contingent: call it love or friendship as Plato does in the Timaeus (following Empedocles). Any unity or universal telos the cosmos might express is contingently won, a free achievement and not an imposed law.

  2. Reblogged this on noir realism and commented:
    Matthew David Segall has an excellent post on religion and atheism that I had to respond too.
    Why do you assume the need of a replacement to begin with? Why do you assume we are supposedly ‘guilty’? Guilty of freedom? Guilty of being born? If you’re going with this tack then why not return to Shame rather than Guilt? Shame before all those others for whom I compete to survive? Jean Delumeau in his magisterial Sin and Fear – The Emergence of Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries once termed this sense of guilt as the “scruple sickness” instigated by the Catholic (obviously the main religion of the era in question) turn toward introspection and moral enforcement or hygiene. Once you impose a moral code, a set of rules on a community and those go against the natural state of affairs conflict arises which stems the flow of natural aggression. This blockage of natural aggression turned against itself is the beginnings of guilt culture. I’ll not go into the antecedents and also realize this is a simplification of an argument that would take a full detailed work to explicate.

    I do not know of any atheists who deny consciousness as a feature of the universe. Even the most blatant eliminativist does not deny consciousness, what they do deny is the permanent implantation of this notion of the first-person-singular, the ‘I’ as Self. Instead they say that it is a mechanism, a function of the brain’s processes just like all other functions, that it comes and goes as needed for specific actions. What eliminativists deny is this notion of capacities and dispositions as existing eternally in consciousness. There are no permanent power, dispotifs, emotions etc. as permanent entities, instead what is taken as the label for all intentional states of affairs is in itself momentary functional process of the brain’s continuous biochemical interactions with the environment.

    This notion that “I do not have Freedom, Freedom has me,” seems a perfect example of statement “I do not have Self, Brain is.” The difference between the two statements is the difference between Idealism and Materialism. Freedom is Idea, Brain is Material. You assume the Idea of Freedom is real, that it has real capacity, that it stands for certain modes, capacities, powers, dispotifs that have causal efficacy. For me freedom has none of these, it is an illusion of the Brain doing what it does in a material universe. But that does not divide material into some old mold of an outdated materialism that sees matter as dead. That materialism never existed, that was always a critical appraisal of materialism by its detractors. Materialism is a monism, but does not reduce everything to the physical as some physicalists did during the positivist era. If one studies to the full extent the complete history of materialism one discovers that at the heart of this unique view of life is a sense of openness to existence that need not be final. Existence is not a set of algorithms, neither is it mathematical, nor is it even bound to the term ‘matter’. As in all human thought the moment you qualify the real by such terms you reduce what cannot be reduced to a human equation. We do have limits, we are blind to our own capacities. We take as sufficient what is actually our own ignorance of the true state of affairs. We scramble for definitions, philosophical theories, scientific facts to sway to argue to bind the real to our Ideas of reality. Reality escapes all our human notions. To use a religious metaphor in a secular way (Paul): “We see through a mirror darkly…”. That is all. What little light we shed of this real is always up for revision as we gain more insight and better tools or apparatuses by which to understand it. An open universe is infinite in this sense. Why? Because it does not follow our rules, it invents its own moment by moment (to use an occasionalist or Whiteheadian metaphor). But this need not entail even a reduction to some Big Other behind the scenes causing those relations between moments. To reduce the mystery to either a secular or religious notion is still to equate the real to human need. The universe does not need us, yet we do. That is all.

  3. I think this is a good point, Matt. “But despite this logical coherence, eliminativism entirely fails the pragmatic experiential test. We all experience ourselves as conscious agents, and even if we give our abstract theories of the causal mechanisms that must underly this experience explanatory priority, we still have to account for the illusion of said experience. ”

    I suppose my question is why should we give priority to these “abstract theories of causal mechanisms” and not our lived experience? Why must I accord them more than instrumental value and proceed to think of myself and everything else as “nothing but” the abstraction at the end of a neuroscientific investigation? Why not resist?

    1. Chen, I was playing devil’s advocate in that statement. I agree with you: we should not commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by prioritizing abstract theories of causal mechanisms over our own direct experience. We must resist such mechanical abstractions. Mistaking them for the “real” reality has done great damage to human psychology and to the rest of the earth community.

      We cannot avoid abstraction, of course. But we must abstract gently, always paying attention to the effects our abstracting has on the concrete agencies and living organisms that these abstractions are meant to explain.

  4. One of the real problems with Anton’s book Sources of Significance is- aside from the great reading of Becker and Hans Jonas- his reliance on some very conservative and idealist figures. like Kenneth Burke. I came away from that book a bit disappointed overall with the desire for a renewed spirituality and so on, and the way the Stoics are looked at for their ethics at the expense of their much more interesting, and much more materialist, metaphysics. Given that I’m a fan of Becker and his contemporary advocates in the Terror Management Theory crowd, it felt like a real let down to have all this turned back towards the ultimate in post-secular mysticisms. My own position on these things is summed up in the phrase “having faith in the empty space of God”, ie. a faith in the absence of the theological as anything but this kind of grand device for coping-with-being that also refuses to fill the vacancy left by the God who is dead. I am all for Becker’s idea that we are “angels with anuses”, theological animals, but I think that there is a distance between a recognition of this feature of being human and an avowal of it as evidence for a need in the Sacred. I recently wrote a piece on Stirner and idealism, and I have to say that on the question of the Sacred I’m with Stirner- for better or worse- that it is, rather like a drug addiction, a form of coping-with that ultimately does more damage than it soothes; or, that while it soothes one set of problems it introduces another.

    In all this I can’t help but think of another fairly conservative figure, perhaps a charlatan, most definitely a guru, who prefigures a lot of the terms of this debate: G.I Gurdjieff. There was a time where I felt both politics and philosophy were on a hiding to nothing (I suppose I was still looking for “a sop to human misery” at that point) and turned towards mystical thought. Although this was only a brief time it was a trip I went through with a friend who became committed to the study of Gurdjieff and joined a group with whom we undertook the Work. While all this seems to have reproduced the organisational and communitarian aspects of the religious, it did so absent a faith, absent a God, and, in line with eliminativism, with a mechanistic concept of consciousness and of the man-machine.

    When Gurdjieff did come to a kind of theism he did so out of entirely psychologically pragmatic grounds: “I got tired of seeing myself as an intelligent but unconscious piece of meat”. In Stirner’s critique of idealism a big part of the problem is that Ideas come to dominate real, reduced in his work to the corporeal self. Even swinging away from that kind of thinking towards a materialist territory, it’s pretty obvious that the kernal of all this is that our ideas become problematic once we assume they exist independently of the evolved and historical social neurocognitive infrastructures from which they emerge and through which they proliferate. The core of religion as religious is just such an autonomisation of the ideal. In a way this is just to restate what you’re saying regarding abstracting gently, in realising that abstractions are pieces of machinery rather than entities on their own ground, even as they can appear to take on such a status via their dynamic interactivity.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that Anton, as good as the book is in other places, seems to move back into a resuscitation of religiosity. I think this is evident where he talks about the Stoics as if they weren’t radically atheist. There are some other gripes I could have with Anton’s approach as well- such as his statement that Sources of Significance is a book partly intended for managers and workplace leaders- but those don’t seem all that relevant here.

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