Here’s an essay on my thoughts on the topic of an afterlife: After Life
I’ve added a new essay on “Fundamental Assertions”. In that essay, I talk about the metaphysical assertions that I think are necessary to affirm our common intuitions that we have free will (could have done otherwise), that there are moral truths (not just subjective preferences), and that there is ultimate meaning and purpose to life.
If there are two words that stir people up more in the science and religion arena than “intelligent design”, I don’t know what they would be. I do know something about the debate because I participated in it in the early 2000s. I was one of the contributors on a website called “Telic Thoughts”. It was a site dedicated to rationally debating the issues in evolution and intelligent design. The website is not up on the web anymore, but you can get a sense of it from the internet archive here. Contributors included a biologist, IT professionals, a mathematician, a physicist, and engineers (myself included). I never really learned much about the religious or non-religious leanings of contributors because the site wasn’t about religion. It was about trying to dispassionately debate the issues of science and possible design inferences from it.
That was some 16 years ago and I hadn’t really thought about the debate much over the years. I do think a lot about teleology and have written about it many times, but I listened to a recent science and faith podcast that woke me from my slumbers a bit. It reminded me that there are misconceptions about what was going on with the debate.
In the podcast, a broad category of “anti-evolutionist” or “counter-science” was applied to those who challenged evolutionary theories. Certainly, there were groups that were anti-evolutionists like the young earth creationists but it is incorrect to apply that term to many critics of evolutionary theory. The prominent intelligent design proponents all accept that evolution has and continues to occur and that there is some role for natural selection operating on mutational changes. What they did claim is that the minimal step-by-step neo-Darwinian (Modern Synthesis) model isn’t adequate to explain what we see in organisms (more on this shortly). They also questioned that evolutionary processes are “blind”, as Richard Dawkins puts it in The Blind Watchmaker. Instead, they believed the data suggests a teleology (purpose) at work. I agree and I’ll offer my perspective on this later in the post.
Second, since all Darwinian theory critics were lumped together, the podcast said that there were contradictions and specious arguments being made and that, instead there was an appeal to values instead of science-based arguments. This also paints a simplistic picture. It wasn’t that simple. Of course, many conservative evangelicals did appeal to values-as-an-argument because they viewed Darwinian evolution as an affront to their theology and its values. However, the reason the debate had such a fevered pitch was that intelligent design proponents made detailed, coherent arguments for design based on scientific empiricism and mathematics. This also showed up in the media.
An often-invoked criticism of intelligent design is that it is religious instead of being science-based. Now, as usual, social movements aren’t that simple. The same is true for intelligent design. The so-called “evolution wars” referenced in the podcast included a range from the young-earth creationists to the non-religious (I think) like David Berlinski. Roughly speaking, there we two main groups. There were those with religious concerns (like the conservative evangelicals) and those who were interested in making the case for design in nature. In the second group, there were academics like Michael Behe, Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, and David Berlinski. While most were Christians and all believed Darwinian theory as typically presented was wrong or inadequate, their arguments were not focused on a religious position. They were focused on the data and whether or not it indicates design in nature. To put it succinctly, their position is that “intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause.” These data included things like fine-tuning and the complexity found in biotic systems. That intelligence could be God or, to reference a current fad, “some extraterrestrial who created a simulation on a supercomputer somewhere.”
So, what’s the status of the debate today? The debate is not in the mainstream like it was when I was involved but there have been some remarkable changes. Folks like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyers continue to contribute to the debate with new books and discussions but there have also been significant changes in biology. The Darwinian model and its Modern Synthesis are falling out of favor with prominent biologists. It’s not that they reject it, per se, but feel it is inadequate to explain evolution (as ID proponents also claimed). The problem is that as biology has advanced, things have gotten way more complicated. There are many problems in evolutionary theory but here are few examples that challenge the adequacy of the modern synthesis.
It used to be thought that most of DNA was junk (a supposed counterargument for design)— nonfunctioning remnants from the past just hanging around. That turns out not to be the case. Much of that so-called junk has been identified as needed for how genes are expressed. These expression processes have now become much more complex involving the full gamut of DNA in the cell.
Also, it has been discovered that mutations aren’t fully random. Now this, in and of itself, doesn’t disavow natural selection operating on mutations but the term “random” usually put in the phrase has to be redacted to some extent. Why mutations aren’t fully random is still an open question and research continues on this issue but here again there is more complexity and questions about why.
Perhaps the greatest problem for the neo-Darwinian minimal step-by-step mutation and natural selection approach comes from the field of biology studying non-DNA elements within the cell. Here’s a link to a presentation from a genetic scientist that outlines what is called “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis”. There is some remarkable stuff here. If Lamarck could speak from the grave he’d probably say “I told you so!” What research in this area indicates is that environmental factors change the dynamics of elements in the cell called RNA to better react to environmental challenges. RNA is a factor in how genes get suppressed or expressed from the many ways they could be. If the environmental factors change how RNA works, very significant changes in gene expression can occur. At first blush, one might think “So What?”, that isn’t inherited so it is not a factor in evolution. However, there are examples where this non-DNA stuff is inherited. How this happens is an area of research but there are examples where seemingly isolated changes in this little RNA find their way into the germline or soma-to-soma and are inherited by offspring. Lamark, you were probably right — the giraffe got its long neck because of non-DNA changes due to taller trees (tongue in cheek). It makes perfect sense that reacting to environmental challenges quickly (with inheritance) would greatly enhance the promotion of fitness. The question is “how could this great complexity have evolved?” These are highly complex interrelational systems and given time frames and population densities this challenges the blind (and chance) model for evolutionary processes.
All this is to say that as things get more complicated and interrelated, simple explanations like neo-Darwinism just don’t seem adequate. Now science, per se, is okay with that. I say “per se” because significant challenges to a theory are always met with resistance. However, when theories don’t seem compelling anymore, new theories are formulated that do or might explain the complications. And so, with biology, the research continues as it should. However, sometimes there can come a point where it looks like “you just can’t get there from here.” Can all this interrelated complexity have come about blindly with no intelligent input? With so many unresolved issues in play, this requires a judgment call. After all, these processes depend on how reality is constituted at fundamental levels. Like in quantum mechanics, we don’t know why a particular event happens when it does. This requires an inference or interpretation. Next, I’ll explain the basis for my judgment call that there is something teleological going on.
I’m not a biologist or mathematician so I’ll defer to them where they have expertise. However, I do have expertise in a relevant area that might inform inferences. I’m retired now but I worked as a design engineer for some 40 years designing machines, systems, and software. So, my expertise is in the design process. For the first half of my career, I did mostly machine design. Some of those designs were complex. They had combinatorial dependencies. This is a well know issue in design and mathematics. Components in a design are highly interrelated. The design of a particular component affects what can possibly follow. To get a design that works as specified you have to consider the design as a whole and be forward-looking. If you aren’t, down the road you can get to an “Oh Shit!” moment where you realize you “just can’t get there from here.” You have to backtrack considerably and try again, hopefully, with better forward-looking.
To illustrate this with an example from biology, here’s what I wrote about combinatorial dependencies on the Telic Thoughts website concerning the poster child of intelligent design, the bacterial flagellum. Here’s a couple of representations:
The Motor Section
Let’s take a look at this in a little detail. First we have a passive pore that starts things off. Since this is the base of the eventual flagellum one has to ask is the pore the right size that the whip of the flagellum can provide the locomotion we see? If it is too small the resulting whip will not be able to handle the stresses from torsion and coupling. If it is too big the whip will be too bulky to be driven in any effective way by the motor. Then we add the secretion system. Is the pore the right size and of the right protein type for the existing secretion system? If not there will be no coupling of the two and no progress.
Ok now we have a selective pore and a secretion system but does it secrete proteins that will be right for the whip? The whip has to have the right protein shape. In engineering, the components of a flexible whip have to be designed to mesh correctly such that there is just the right combination of coupling, flexibility, and rigidity. They also have to be the right material. If they are too soft there will be galling. If they are too hard fatigue cracks will set in and destroy the whip. The same goes for clearances between parts. Too tight and it binds. Too loose and it wobbles and destroys itself. This is a goldie-locks situation. Things have to be just right or it won’t work.
Next we have to add the motor. Let’s assume we’re very lucky that a motor will fit and couple with what we have so far. However, the motor has to have the rpm and torque to drive the whip just right. If it doesn’t have enough torque we won’t get what we see. If the rpm is too fast the whip will destroy itself because of the hydrodynamic forces applied to it by the fluid. Then it and all the other components have to be sized just right to reverse or the torsional forces on the whip will rip it apart. Remember the diameter, materials, meshing of parts, fits, etc. in this Darwinian scenario have no idea what will be required later.
I could go on and on but I hope you get the idea of combinatorial dependencies. And things are really worse when you consider the problem of “you just can’t get there from here”. If one component violates the needed dependencies that must be satisfied, you can’t just mutate that one component because every component depends on the others. As any design engineer will attest from their mistakes, you just have to start over. In real design a computer program would probably be written to play what-if scenarios to match the torque required, the materials and configuration of whip components, the bearing size and thickness based on cell wall strength, hydrodynamic factors, torsional and coupling stresses, etc and etc. Also this doesn’t even take into account the assembly processes that are required. They also have their own dependencies.
The point is that simplistic just-so stories based on blind mutations just aren’t adequate from an engineering perspective. There’s entirely too much luck involved to be taken seriously. Darwinian proponents will have to do much better than this to convince anyone acquainted with real machines.
Why do complex machines like computers, space stations, automobiles, and the like work? Because they were intelligently designed by people and programed computers spending untold hours looking at dependencies and complex interrelations.
I’ve read many articles and books written by intelligent design proponents. (YouTube also has many videos on this) From a laymen’s perspective, they seem convincing. But just from my perspective as a design engineer, I’m convinced there is something teleological going on in evolution and life in general.
Winston Churchill defining success: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” One of my favorite athletes is the Swiss tennis player Stan Wawrinka. He has, in my opinion, one of the best one-handed backhands of all time. It’s so powerful and beautifully done. However, the other thing I admire about him is his attitude. He’s been a top player but never dominated like the Big Three (Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic). So, how did he deal with the losses? Here’s the tattoo he put on his forearm:
It reads: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”
We are all familiar with failure. It’s just part of life. The question is how do we deal with it? These two individuals offer exemplary models. Failures test us. They may shake our confidence. It can be tempting to lose hope. But there is no upside to that. It takes courage to try again. And fail again. It takes faith in the face of doubt to keep trying. But isn’t that what really matters? Isn’t success as Churchill defined it?
Humans have had an interest in metaphysics for millennia. When did it all start? That’s hard to know but things like red ochre and personal items were even found in Neanderthal graves. That makes one wonder why. Then, of course, there is the long history of metaphysical thinking from early animism to what we have today.
Metaphysics reaches beyond what is straightforwardly apparent. That requires speculations. The human psyche needs to find some broad orientation for living. There are essential questions that beg for answers. What is the meaning of life? How should I live? What happens when I die? What is the good? And so on.
If metaphysical systems help people orient their lives, inform how they should think about things, and live, the question is “which one?” Lord knows there is no shortage of these systems. There are even new ones coming on the scene all the time. Not only are there religious systems but also non-religious systems. More-or-less systematic attempts date back at least three or four thousand years. If internet activity in forums and online media outlets like YouTube is an indication, there is considerable interest in metaphysical explorations.
For most people, these explorations aren’t just for fun. They are existentially (what matters to us) important. So, choosing one to orient one’s life around is also important. How does that choosing process come about? For most people, the choice was initially already made by their upbringing or the culture they found themselves in. However, for some, there comes a point when their current metaphysical system (religious or non-religious) isn’t working for them any more. So, they may start looking for something else. The search is on. With so much metaphysical thought out there that can be a daunting task. However, I think it can be facilitated by understanding what essentials would have to be present in a system such that it is a viable option. We all have intuitions about what is important to us. Those intuitions may not be that explicit but they can be. They can be thought of as essential criteria that must be met.
Understanding the essential criteria can help short-circuit a fruitless extended evaluation. If something in the system doesn’t meet a criterion, that can be a deal-breaker. It is no longer viable. Some systems are complex. So this may require scanning ahead to look for problem areas. Addressing existential issues is difficult and often put off for much later in a system (if at all). If they aren’t addresses at all, that should be a red flag. By looking for deal-breakers that can avoid a lot of wasted time. It can help one know when to quit on that particular approach. From there, the search can move on.
Now, some proposed metaphysical systems are just in the fledgling stage but might be promising. This makes things a bit more complicated. One way to evaluate an incomplete new system (or any one that doesn’t explicitly address existential concerns) is to look at the early fundamentals and project where they can lead. A good place to start is ontology — how things fundamentally are. Is there a monism or dualism? Is it simple or complex? Is there fundamental intentionality or non-intentionality involved in how reality is constituted? And so on. Initial fundamentals constrain what can follow and determine whether or not it is even possible for certain criteria to be met. It takes some experience with various systems but using this method may greatly facilitate an evaluation.
While so far I’ve talked about a personal evaluation of metaphysical systems, this applies equally to those who are trying to develop one. As an example, recently I’ve seen a lot in forums and online media about the problem of consciousness (subjective experience) with many proposals being offered. Inevitably, they either propose a metaphysical system or expand on one. For developers, knowing when to quit on a certain line of thinking and try something else can avoid wasted time and crucial (perhaps terminal) problems down the road.
So, as an example, here’s the list of criteria I have used to evaluate metaphysical systems and develop my own. Obviously, answers to these criteria need to be unpacked so I’ll put in links where I do so. Your criteria may be different but if you have a sense of them, perhaps you can quickly know when to quit on a particular approach.
- Have verisimilitude (appears to be true)
- Be monistic
- Be ontologically personal
- Be reasonable
- Be systematic
- Be science-friendly
- No violational supernaturalism
- No eschatology (end times) or soteriology (salvation schemes)
- Affirm religious experiences and intuitions
- Be world-affirming
- Affirm ongoing divine activity
- Affirm teleology (personal and divine purpose)
- Affirm objective meaning
- Affirm objective value (moral realism)
- Affirm free will
- Affirm the efficacy of prayer
- Better address the problem of evil
- Address consciousness
- Logically sound (following the rules of logic)
- Coherent (makes sense, nothing obscure)
- Consistent (no self-contradictions)
- Rigorous (details matter)
- Complete (doesn’t leave out anything pertinent)
- Elegant (no ill-conceived contrivances, only as complex as needed)
Metaphysics is about questions and answers. Why is there something? Why is the world the way it is? What is the meaning of life? And so on. Some questions about reality may find straightforward answers. We can make observations and postulate reasonable explanations. However, some questions are underdetermined by observation. There can be different answers from the same observations. In that case, to formulate answers requires inferences and speculations. So, we get metaphysical systems, both religious and non-religious. These systems can vary widely. Why?
To answer that question requires a deep dive into where metaphysical systems come from and why they take the shapes they do. Obviously, that is a complex question but in this post, I want to focus on a particular feature of metaphysical systems — a value assessment of the world. That value assessment can also be complicated but it can be broadly characterized as world-affirmation or world-rejection.
Metaphysical systems don’t just pop into existence from nowhere. They emerge from worldviews. When a deep question is asked about reality, the answers are greatly influenced by the worldviews held by individuals and cultures of the time. At any particular time in history, a certain sentiment may emerge about the state of the world. When times are hard, perhaps with lots of violence and wars going on, the assessment of the world will tend to be negative. When times are good, it may be more positive. This also applies to metaphysical thinkers and their psychological makeup. Also, sometimes an event can create a psychological crisis that changes a worldview. Legend has it that Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha), who was raised in a privileged environment, when exposed to the real world with its troubles had his worldview dramatically changed. This spurred him on to develop what we now know as Buddhism. Other seminal religious thinkers have their own motivating histories. The worldviews of most may not be so dramatic. It can be just an inculcation from the family, group, or culture. Still, they shape how we think about the world and our place in it. When certain metaphysical questions are asked, the answers tend to flow from that worldview.
Metaphysical systems, while not totally linear, do build on foundational principles that set the tone for what can follow. A key factor in how those foundations are formulated is a world value assessment. Shortly, I’ll talk about how certain assessments (world affirmation/rejection) have had a profound effect on religious systems worldwide.
Renowned sociologist of religion, Robert Bellay researched and wrote extensively on how religious sentiment evolved over the millennia. Here I’ll focus on what he says concerning a world value assessment within religion. Bellah talks about phases in religious evolution:
“There are 5 major phases in the world-wide evolution of religion. Acceptance of “this world” is emphasized in the first and last phases. Rejection of “this world” is highest in the middle phase, Historic Religion. Rejection of “this world” is a function primarily of religious dualism. Dualism reaches its peak during the historic phase when the “great, universal, ethical religions” emerged—Christianity, post-tribal Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam.”
The phase of historic religion is particularly important because it is out of this phase the major world religions came into being and remain dominant worldwide.
When a particular world assessment is chosen, that has far-reaching consequences for the theology or religious philosophy. Questions beg for solutions. If the question is “why is the world so screwed up?” and the answer comes out of a world-rejection worldview then the answers will almost be inevitable. With a fundamentally flawed world, the obvious answers could be twofold — get out or get something new and better. This leads to two terms used in theology but also apply to religious philosophy — soteriology and eschatology. Soteriology is about salvation schemes. If the world (or us) is so fundamentally flawed, it needs to be saved. So, we get salvations schemes. Those vary among the major traditions and even within them. In mainstream Christianity, the world is flawed because of human sin. This leads to a judicial type of soteriology. The scales of justice must be balanced. They are balanced with the atoning death and resurrection of the Son of God. That balances the scales but what about this flawed world. Enter eschatology. Eschatology is about the end times when this eon comes to an end and a new one begins. Presumably, this new eon won’t be flawed like this one. What this new eon is like varies. There could be a new heaven and earth or just some heavenly (unflawed) existence.
Obviously, this mainstream approach has major theological problems. Did God screw up in creating this world? Isn’t the artisan responsible for the artifact? This presents a picture of God as an incompetent creator where a fix has to be applied. So, does God do a better job creating the new heaven and Earth? There are many other problems with this world-rejecting sentiment but that’s not what this post is about.
In the East, this world-rejection also shows up in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism, and Confucianism. What we get also has various salvation schemes and eschatologies. These vary greatly among these religious philosophies but a common thread in Buddhism and Hinduism is “the liberation from or ending of samsara, the repeating cycle of birth, life, and death.” The eschatology may be more of a personal escape or transformation.
Theologies and religious philosophies are built on fundamental tenets. They are fundamental for a reason. Fundaments are needed as a basis upon which further explications can ensue. They shape and restrict the system according to the questions asked and answers given. Since they are fundamental, any attempt to change the sentiment is highly problematic. But what if a fundamental worldview is no longer compelling? Again Robert Bellah. The first phase he calls “Primitive Religions” and the last phase (our current one), “Modern Religion”.
“Acceptance of “this world” is emphasized in the first and last phases.”
Studies show that the fastest-growing group regarding religion is the “nones” — no religious affiliation. There are many reasons for this decline but according to studies one of the major ones is that the tenets of a religion are no longer compelling or believable. In other words, they don’t seem to fit in with the current worldview.
Now, broadly speaking, I don’t view this disaffiliation as problematic. I myself became unaffiliated some 25 years ago. However, disaffiliation can have its personal downside. It can lead to a sense of loss and being spiritually adrift. That was my case for a while. Still, disaffiliation can be a motivating force for reassessment. It can lead to spiritual or religious growth.
Now, theologians have recognized this issue for a long time. They, themselves may have experienced a sea-change in their own thinking. So, they responded. I don’t know much about other religious traditions but within liberal Christianity, there have been many attempts to reframe Christian theology to address the changing worldviews. Whether or not some may be effective is an open question. If those changes enhance people’s lives and aren’t harmful, in my view, all the better.
I believe this questioning of ancient sentiment is a positive. Life is about growth and change. A world-rejecting worldview can have significant downsides. It can lead to a complacency toward the serious problems the world faces. If soteriology and eschatology are in the offing, why bother with concerns about the future? If escape or a new creation are the goals, that is a cop-out instead of a sober affirmation of life as it is.
If there is an affirmation of the world just as it is, that changes things dramatically. There is a call to action. I believe one of the goals for this Divine Life is the eternal creation of love, courage, beauty, and meaning. There is no perfection to be attained, only the constant effort to create the good and beautiful. Doesn’t that offer a profound meaningfulness for life? Isn’t that enough?
On this website, I’ve advocated for a divine idealism ontology (also an aspect monism). I’ve talked about this ontology throughout the website but here, in this short post, I’ll discuss one reason why I think it is a crucial step in choosing an ontology that addresses the perennial issues in religious metaphysics.
Human beings have an intuitive sense that there is a profound meaning to the universe, there is free-will, and there are objective values (morality). Why should we accept these intuitions? Basically, because in the ontology employed here, everything has a divine depth that informs us. Here are a couple of short posts addressing this, here and here.
So, how can it be that those issues (meaning, free-will, objective values) are real? Essentially, it comes down to how reality is constituted. The prevalent view among science-minded individuals and even most religious thinkers is that reality is constituted via laws and chance (quantum indeterminism). Accordingly, every event in the universe is determined by necessity and chance. This is a disastrous choice. It means that reality is autonomic, just doing what it does without intent. Since humans are part of the universe and because of the causal chain of events, humans are just automatons. Autonomic systems don’t have meaning, free-will, or values because they just do what they inevitably do.
If we are to affirm the intuition that we are not mere automatons, what ontology can be chosen? I think a divine idealism offers a solution (the only viable one as I see it). In a divine idealism every event in the universe is intentional in the mind of God. This includes the regularities we see (and science tries to characterize) as well as the novelty that indeterminism affords. There are no laws or chance. Everything occurs according to divine purpose. What purpose? That’s a complicated question that I’ve address in many essays but essential it is that the universe is constituted such that, among many other things, those features I’ve mentioned (meaning, free-will, objective value) are possible. The other element of the ontology I employ is an aspect monism. That means that everything (God-as-living) is an aspect of God-as-transcendent and participates in the divine ultimate meaning, freedom, and value. We are not automatons. Instead, we are parts of the Divine Life where we participate in profound meaning, have some freedom, and must make moral choices. A divine idealism and aspect monism ontology offers a way to think about metaphysics where our deep-seated intuitions can be affirmed.
Ok, this is a bit of a rant. But sometimes theologies of God really irritate me. There is a strain of theology that bothers me to no end. It is found in Process Theology as well as its cousin Open and Relational Theology. It presents a picture of God as all “sweetness and light” or pure love. Sounds good doesn’t it? Not to me. Here’s why. In this view, God is ontologically distinct from this reality but somehow also engaged in what happens. Usually, this engagement is expressed in terms of “lure”. Supposedly, God is distinct from this reality but “lures” it towards the good. Since God is ontologically distinct, God is untainted by the flaws of life. God “feels” our pain, “suffers in absentia”, and tries to lure the world to a better place.
Now, I have no problem with God-as-transcendent trying to shape the world such that the good and beautiful become manifest. How this might happen is a subtle and complex issue but what I find irritating about these ontological views of God is that God is too good to “be in the trenches” with any ontological risk, or ontologically fighting for what is noble, courageous, good, and true. Why should we care about such a pure, impotent, distant God? This God can’t be interested in prayers of supplication because God can’t do anything ontologically active about them. God is constrained (by who knows what), relegated to a persuader trying passive-aggressively to influence what happens. Strikingly, this persuasion-only God isn’t very good at persuasion. Just look at the horrors this God failed to dissuade. An addict can get more benefit from a skillful therapist or a proactive friend orchestrating an intervention than praying to this God.
The God of Process Theology and Open and Relational Theology is an impotent “goody-two-shoes”. Sorry, I told you this was a rant.
No! The God envisioned in the ontology offered on this website is a God who chose to live in all its aspects both good and evil. God-as-living is ontologically at risk. Every life must deal with the struggles of finitude. Every life has the divine within, with forceful impetuses toward divine goals. This impetus is not some passive persuasion but rather an active powerful force like a magnet or gravity that can intensify as needed while still honoring the free-will of God-as-living. Even what we consider the most despicable individuals have this depth and with it that “still small voice” calling to embrace it. In some, this impetus fails and we get horrid evils. Such is the nature of free-will. For most, however, this impetus toward divine goals has an effect, even if partial and ambiguous. It has an effect because the God “in the trenches” is a living aspect (God-as-living ) of God-as-transcendent.
God isn’t just for the fortunate or powerful. God is particularly for those who are the weakest and most fragile among us. They pray for help and God answers powerfully. Their suffering may not end but they are not alone. That is because God is suffering as them. The strength of God within means they can endure and even thrive in spite if their trials. This can offer a peace “that surpasses all understanding.” It means that they, even in their suffering and trials are part of something profound and meaningful. Their lives and how they respond to it have a deep impact on the communion of all things. They contribute to the eternal creation of love, courage, beauty, and meaning. The God of my belief is not some distant, pure being as depicted in these theologies, but one who is “in the trenches” striving to be noble and brave, to love and create beauty, and reveling in the meaningfulness of life both with its joys and sorrows.
Where It’s Useful
I’m a big fan of simplicity in principle but with one major caveat. Except for a two-year break to study theology, I worked about 40 years as a design engineer designing machines, systems, and software. In that work, simplicity was an important goal. Simpler designs are less costly, easier to manufacture, maintain, and generally more reliable. The fewer “moving parts” in a machine, system, or software the less likely there will be problems with it. But here’s the major caveat. The design had to work. It had to meet the specifications even if that required more complexity.
This goal of simplicity could be broadly understood under the concept of parsimony. One of the most generally recognizable ways of characterizing parsimony is Occam’s Razor, named after English Franciscan friar William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). Often the Razor is summarized in sentences like: “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity”, or the one most likely attributable to Ockham himself, “Plurality must never be posited without necessity”. The one I particularly like is probably a paraphrase of what Einstein actually said. It goes: “Everything should be made as simple as possible — but not simpler.” The key point in these is that necessity should guide how simple or complex a theory or system should be. So what determines the necessity?
Let me offer an example from my work. When I worked in the aerospace industry, specifications for a system often had hundreds of requirements. Now, here’s a key point. All those specifications had to be met. The necessity was meeting the entire specification. However, one of the prominent specifications, either explicit or implied was parsimony. Systems had to work but if they were unnecessarily complex that could make them very costly to make, maintain, and be less reliable. So, “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity”. Parsimony then is an essential component of the mindset and method of design so that things work well.
Now, let me turn to the use of parsimony in theology and metaphysics. I think the aforementioned understanding of parsimony is also an essential part of the mindset and method of doing them. Metaphysics and theology both require speculations. That is the nature of metaphysics. So, the KISS method (“keep it simple, stupid”) should be taken seriously. However, there is also a constant dialog going on. Every step in a design (theological or metaphysical) constrains what can come next. So as the design process unfolds, every step along the way must try to anticipate the consequences for what will come later. If this is not taken into account, entities will have to be multiplied later to compensate for this lack of foresight. When that happens things can get out of hand quickly and create more opportunities for the system to become incomplete, incoherent, contrived, or inconsistent. So, the challenge for these types of systems is finding one that works (more on this in a bit) without creating complexity beyond necessity. To do that one needs to think about the entire specification throughout the design process.
Where it is Misused
Parsimony is misused in metaphysics when it is used as an argument. There are several ways the concept of parsimony can become problematic. Metaphysicians and theologians try to make arguments for why their formulations are right. Fair enough. They offer exhibits like data, logic, consistency, coherence, explanatory power, and so on. However, if parsimony is used as an exhibit — an argument, that is problematic. It’s problematic because it can lead to a misunderstanding, be counterproductive, and/or be misleading.
The first way it can be misunderstood is when it is really an argument from simplicity. There is a major difference between “not multiplying entities beyond necessity” and an argument from simplicity. Parsimony is neutral on whether or not an explanation will end up being simple or complex. It simply suggests that it is best to not go overboard with speculations when they are not necessary. However, if the argument-from-parsimony is really an argument from simplicity that has a presupposition embedded in it that fundamental reality is simple so it can or should be characterized in a simple way.
An example of this type of inclination can be found in physics where there can be a presupposition of simplicity such that major efforts and resources are committed to finding an equation that completely explains physical reality but can also fit on a tee shirt. Now, I don’t think searching for such an equation is problematic itself, but if there is a driving desire for such a simple solution, that can be counterproductive and prematurely cut off entertaining other more complex options. This could also apply to metaphysics.
However, the most abused form of parsimony-as-an-argument comes in from the very nature of metaphysics. Almost invariably metaphysics is systematic. Systematic metaphysics is a complex arena. There are many parts to it that are relational and often combinatorially so.
What characterizes a system? It should be coherent, logically sound, consistent, complete, rigorous, and elegant(including parsimony in the first sense I mentioned). There is so much going on in these systems that parsimony-as-an-argument, if used, would have to apply to the whole system. Since there are so many interrelational parts involved, how could parsimony possibly be asserted coherently? At best it would be just a vague intuition and not definitive at all.
So, for those who are trying to evaluate a metaphysical system, an invocation of parsimony could be misleading. An argument is supposed to contribute to the validity of an explanation or solution. But does parsimony really do that in systematic metaphysics?
A way to approach this question is to look at it pragmatically. To use an engineering phrase: “Does it work?” That depends on what “it works” means. To answer that we’d have to look at the domain of “it works”. Does it meet the entire “specified requirements?” One way to think about this domain is to determine what questions are being asked. Metaphysics is an attempt to speculated beyond “the physics” which means explanations are sought that offer answers to certain questions. If parsimony-as-an-argument is invoked, almost invariably the domain is very restricted. This can be misleading because as the system expands beyond that limited domain and tries to offer answers to the full gamut of questions, the so-called parsimony can evaporate with a series of ad hoc assertions, questionable brute facts, or odd contrivances in an attempt to make things work. This is why seeking parsimony-as-an-argument for a system is ill-conceived and often misleading.
Let me offer a couple of examples where I think this issue can be the case. The problem of subjective experience or phenomenal consciousness has found a lot of interest among philosophers of mind and in social media. How do we explain subjective experience within present worldviews? Materialism (a.k.a. physicalism) seems to have a problem with this. I won’t go into this question in depth here but among the proposals getting traction that supposedly offer better answers than materialism are forms of panpsychism and idealism. There are many varieties of these but in some of the prominent ones, the idea is to make experience fundamental. If subjective experience doesn’t fit in with materialism, why not just make it fundamental? So, in these systems, experience is what might be called the ontological primitive upon which everything else is built. Some forms of idealism have called this the “consciousness only” model. (Note: This is very different from the divine idealism I argue for on this website.)
So, what are the arguments for this approach? Prominent among them is an argument-from-parsimony. Supposedly it’s the simplest explanation that accounts for subjective experience. Now, if the question of subjective experience is the complete domain of interest, parsimony-as-an-argument could carry some weight. But is that really the total domain of questions? Hardly. First, when a simple primitive is posited as fundamental then how are the complexities we see accounted for? For example, in physics, the standard model has various types of particles (or excitations in quantum fields) and the four fundamental forces. So, this physics model is complicated. To be consilient with this model, the experiential fundamental would have to be more than just a raw experience. There would have to be some relational dynamics also in play that mirrored things like mass, spin, charge, as well as the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism or the fields associated with them. Suddenly, experience as a fundamental becomes much more complex with lots more going on than just a raw experience.
Then for human beings, there is much more. In systematic metaphysics, all related issues need to be addressed. They can’t be ignored because inevitably these other issues will enter into the conversation. We see this in interviews, podcasts, and videos. Questions are posed like “what does this say about the meaning of life?” or “does free-will fit in somehow?” or “what does this mean for morality?” Eventually, existential issues like meaning, free-will, purpose (teleology), morality, and so on, are raised because metaphysics isn’t taken as just some neutral puzzle-solving endeavor.
How would a so-called simple fundamental answer those questions? Is there a meaning principle in experience? Is there a free will process in experience? An experiential purpose element? A value law? And so on. Again, suddenly a so-called parsimony begins to seem suspect. To make it work what we might see are odd contrivances, equivocation, obfuscation, and ad hoc postulates or brute facts. In other words, “entities will have to be multiplied” to make the system work.
Now, perhaps there are ways to make this “consciousness only” model work. Time will tell. My point is that parsimony-as-argument based on an extremely limited domain is ill-conceived for systems. For systematic metaphysics, parsimony-as-an-approach is a perfectly legitimate aim but as-an-argument it shouldn’t be given any weight.
Why this might matter?
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Without a sense of meaning all sorts of psychological problems arise. To a large extent that meaning comes from a worldview — who and what we are and our place and relationship to reality. In every age, there are many worldviews in operation. They vary not only among individuals but also between cultures. Often they form a basis for how lives and societies are structured and operate.
It appears we are in one of those periods in history where there is a growing trend to reject past worldviews and the metaphysical systems that support them. They just aren’t compelling to many people. Of course, this is nothing new. There have been periods of relative stability where certain worldviews were generally accepted for long periods of time. However, as things change in culture and knowledge that can present challenges to a current metaphysical system or religious tradition.
As an example, polls have shown that the fastest growing group relating to religion are the “nones” — the unaffiliated. This is particularly true for younger people. Whether or not this is problematic for someone depends on the individual. I can speak from personal experience because I became unaffiliated over 30 years ago. There can be a sense of loss but it can also be liberating. However, for me, it also created a feeling of being adrift religiously. I remained a theist but wasn’t sure what that meant for me. That situation was the impetus for me to work on the theology found on this website.
So, there is a growing number of those who do not feel the religious traditions compelling anymore but there may also be others who are outside the traditions and have an uncomfortable feeling about the worldview they presently feel aligned to. These could be atheists, agnostics, or those who do not have a religious background. If there is this metaphysical unrest then what is a person to do? Often this results in a search for something to address that unrest. It may start with surveying long-standing metaphysical systems. If those don’t seem right then it may broaden to new approaches. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there haven’t been many new systematic metaphysical systems recently. I can think of a couple — process philosophy and integral theory (Ken Wilber), but there does seem to be more on the horizon coming from the philosophy of mind arena like those I mentioned earlier.
The question is, how can they be assessed and which ones seem compelling? What criteria or reasons can be brought to bear? Well, obviously this can vary greatly from person to person. For some, it may be primarily intuitional but for others, a more explicit, detailed, and rigorous approach is needed. If the latter is the case then arguments are important.
Now, since the religious traditions have become a disappointment to many, the last thing those searching for their metaphysical bearings would want is to entertain a new metaphysical system only to find out later that it had deep flaws concerning the most pressing existential issues I’ve mentioned. This is why I think it is important to be clear about what is being argued for in a metaphysical system.
Accordingly, I think too much illegitimate weight is put on parsimony-as-an-argument for metaphysical systems. Claiming parsimony as a major argument for a particular system can be so misleading I don’t think it should be used at all. Systems are far too complex, combinatorial, and interrelated to claim parsimony. Instead, the totality of arguments within a system that addresses all relevant issues should determine whether the formulation is compelling or not.
I recently watched yet another video on free-will. Boring. Same old, same old. So here’s the deal. How is reality constituted? If reality is constituted by laws and chance then any attempts to rescue existential concerns like free-will, meaning, moral objectivity, and purpose are hopeless. Why? Because that means everything at all levels of complexity are determined by necessity (laws) and chance (quantum indeterminacy). The causal chain, no matter how complex just does what it does and can’t do otherwise. If this is the case then everything, including the human being, is just an autonomic system. That should be a straightforward conclusion, right? Apparently not because so much effort is put into somehow spinning this obvious conclusion with all sorts of linguistic gymnastics, obfuscation, or some sort of magic. I think enough is enough. With all the attempts over the centuries to overcome this conclusion it should just be accepted as futile.
So, if this situation is untenable both existentially and psychologically then what might be the options? One option maintains the law-and-chance model but seeks to overcome it with supernaturalism. In this approach, laws and chance are affirmed but the way to avoid the fatalism entailed is to override those laws and chance at times. Now, since we are talking about free-will this overriding isn’t just occasional. It’s happening all the time. Every free decision must override the necessity and chance inherent in how reality is normally constituted. Also, in the ontological dualism of standard theism, this means every free creature is also a supernatural agent.
If the supernatural model seems odd or not appealing what might be another option? Enter divine idealism. In divine idealism reality is constituted by the divine mind. So, every event is intentional and includes divine freedom. There are no laws or chance. Everything, down to the most elemental event is intentional. Now, that doesn’t mean there are no regularities. That would entail a chaotic system that wouldn’t make life possible. We empirically affirm and characterize those regularities with scientific investigations. Also, from science, reality seems to be constituted with a statistically consistent framework. Not just anything goes. In a divine idealism, there are divine self-imposed constrains in how the divine mind constitutes reality. Here you can think of how you would imagine and construct a story in your own mind. It would have regularities that made the story possible and coherent but it would also not be autonomic with no novelty or freedom. Everything would be intentional with a constrained freedom that still maintained a stability.
I think this is a valid, reasonable model for how reality is constituted that would allow for free-will, meaning, objective morality, and purpose. If reality is constituted by the divine mind and each life is an aspect of that divine mind then the freedom, meaning, and value of the divine mind is shared with finite creatures within some constraints. We aren’t supernatural creatures but rather participants and co-creators with God-as-transcendent in how reality is constituted both for ourselves and the cosmos.
There are metaphysical systems that claim reality is constituted non-intentionally. In this worldview, there are non-intentional laws and processes that create reality at every level. If that constitution is non-intentional then existential concepts like purpose, objective value, free will, and meaning are vacuous because no matter at what level of complexity there is, it’s just autonomic — mirroring the character of that which constituted it. For thinking and sentient beings, this presents an absurdity. Why? Because those beings have a profound sense that those existential concepts are not just an illusion perpetrated on them by non-intentional nature but are real. Also wouldn’t it seem absurd that all this — the entire universe and all the beings in it are just meaningless.
This absurd sense becomes apparent when we see the extraordinary lengths those who profess that worldview go through to salvage them somehow. These attempts always fail with a necessity and chance causal structure that a non-intentional constitution entails.
Now, an argument from absurdity is considered a logical fallacy. So what? This only carries weight for those who think that logic alone can capture the essence of reality. Sure, without logical constructs there can be a descent into nonsense. What is often missed, however, is that logic is grounded in our intuitions about how things work. If logic alone was determinative then we would expect that analytic philosophy would have eventually reached a consensus of conclusions. Not even close. Something must be missing. Can the structure we see be just part of the picture? Perhaps the structural aspect provides the stability that life can exist but there is also novelty within constraints that offers the meaning and purpose we intuitively feel.
There is a reason humans personify the ultimate. If the ultimate is personal then it is intentional as well — and relational. Even non-theistic religions like Buddhism have personifications among adherents. We want to be in relation with the universe and beyond. Without a relationship to the ultimate we are alone and isolated. As finite creatures this doesn’t work. It deprives us of a sense of being part of something profound. If taken seriously, that only leads to despair and nihilism.
So, there is a choice. We can obscure the absurdity of being an automaton through ignorance, denial, or repression and just carry on. Or we can embrace that there is a personal, intention ground to reality that we can relate to and be a part of something profound going on in this life.
There are a lot of terms bandied about regarding the metaphysical foundations of reality. Some are physicalism, materialism, panpsychism, idealism, theism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, and so on. Of course, the devil is in the details on what these really mean. Here I’d like to distill this down to a couple of terms that I think indicate an essence of these terms. Those terms are intentionalism and non-intentionalism. At the bottom line, the question is, is there intention or non-intention fundamental to how reality is constituted?
Intentionality has certain features. First, there is a goal or purpose in mind. Intention isn’t just happenstance. It is about something. If there is a goal then there must also be some value system at work. If there is a goal in mind and values at work then that means there must be options. Without live options, intentionality is meaningless. If there are live options, that means that there must be freedom to choose from them. All this entails complexity. Intentionality requires complex processes. Goals must be determined based on values. Choices and actions must be evaluated according to their effects, and decisions must be made based on all that. We all know this intuitively from our own sense of self. Without intentionality the only thing left is fatalism — things just happen for no intentional reason. Non-intentionality has none of the features of intentionality. Stuff just happens.
So, what has all this to do with fundamental reality? A lot. That’s because of causation. We know things happen within a causal chain. One thing causes another. The chain may be short, say in a rock falling to the ground or it may be highly complex like in the neural networks of the brain. But causes beget effects which, in turn, beget other causes. If fundamental reality is non-intentional then every step in the causal chain is also non-intentional. Unless magic is invoked, there is no place for intentionality to come in. So, no freedom. No value. No meaning.
Now, if someone acknowledges the fatalism in the non-intentional approach, fine. At least they are being honest. This rarely happens. Why? Because it’s hard to swallow that worldview. So, what happens? A lot depends on influencers. These are public intellectuals who know the details of arguments and promote their worldview to others. Now, since the fatalistic worldview is abhorrent to many in the public, what are they to do? In short, equivocate. Definition of equivocation: “the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth”. The general public might not know the nuances of the argument so they are ripe for being mislead. All that is required is to throw in a few equivocated intentional terms in the non-intentional presentation and the public will be none the wiser. Examples are free-will in compatibilism or teleology when teleonomy (no real purpose) is what is meant. Terms like meaning and purpose are often used when they are vacuous in an autonomic universe.
A reality grounded in fundamental intentionality can offer so many things we existentially feel we have and would like. Meaning, purpose, free will, moral objectivity, etc. are all in the offing. So, when evaluating a particular metaphysical system perhaps it can be helpful to ascertain if what is being promoted is fundamentally intentional or non-intentional.
Most people don’t like to think of themselves as automatons — just inevitably doing what they do. But that is the logical inference if reality is constituted by necessity (laws) and chance (quantum indeterminacy). So what do those who subscribe to the non-intentional model of reality do? There are numerous attempts to somehow salvage free will. Some are just nonsense like compatibilism and others try to find some way to use indeterminism. None of that works if necessity and chance determine every event in the universe.
Another thing most people want to believe is that we make conscious decisions. Here the key word is “conscious”. But how would that work? After all, we know that most of the decision-making process is done unconsciously. There are billions of neural processes going on that we have no awareness or experience of. It’s only very late in the process that we experience a decision. So, there is all this processing going on unconsciously and then after all that is done there is suppose to be some other different conscious processing that makes a decision or vetoes the decision make unconsciously. In that case there seems to be a phenomenal (experience based) homunculus (some extra something that has its own decision making processes). Seems like a weird contrivance to me.
Now, even if any of that were truth the missing necessary element in those schemes would be why a certain decision is made. The unconscious neural processes have all sorts of biases in their circuits that determine the processing at every step. Here you can think about a single neural synapse that has a chemical/electrical bias to react a certain way because of an input. Now, obviously there is an incredible complexity at work with all parts of the brain interacting but in the non-intentional model the brain just does what it does, much like a computer. In a computer each bit sets its state based on the input to it. It has a bias that responds to an input.
So in the non-intentional model, our unconscious processes do their biased thing and eventually end up with a decision (sometimes through a very tortuous process). Then the homunculus steps in and accepts or rejects that? Based on what? This is the missing necessary element in this scheme. There should be some other criterion for making a different conscious (homunculus) decision than what the neural process came up with. But what would that be? The non-intentional constitutionalists would need to come up with something here. In years of following this topic I haven’t seen anything like that.
So, instead of the non-intentional approach, here’s what I think may be going on. In a divine idealism every event in the universe is intentional. There are no laws and no chance. Everything happens because of intentionality — both the regularities and novelties. This includes everything in our brains. Every event happens for a reason. Those reasons are twofold. They are twofold because they include those of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. I’ve talked about this elsewhere — and will in more detail on how this might work in an upcoming essay on divine action. So, the issue at hand is what is involved in why we make a certain decision?
Now, here I’m going to speculate from physics but based on some mainstream models. I think that every event in the universe is connected and integrated with everything else. Thus decisions are not just something “magical” happening. They occur within the life giving constraints of this reality.
In the divine idealism model, there is a teleological impetus involved in every event, even at the microscopic level. I’m using the term “impetus” because it denotes an active, forceful factor. As an analogy, think of how a magnet applies a force to attract a metal object. This is not some passive “lure” like in process theology. It is an active (but not coercive) influence toward a certain direction. The force of the magnet can be resisted but it is still an important factor in a decision. God-as-transcendent provides an impetus according to the divine purposes for this reality. However, God-as-living (that’s us and everything else) also has internal impetuses at work. These ensue from being finite creatures with certain motivations, needs, and desires. Sometimes there may be a competing impetus. I think that competition can occur at every step in the decision making neural processes, not just at the end. Every step is part of an integrated whole within the Divine Life Communion. What this means is that at every point in the process a decision must fit within the statistical model of how reality is constituted and take into account what is possible within those bounds. However, novelties can also occur within those bounds. So, live options are available. At various points in the process the competing teleological impetuses can become pronounced and a decision must be made. There is a constrained free will at work here. Each decision narrows what is possible. Eventually a final decision is made. It’s a decision on what impetus we freely choose to win out.
So, where does consciousness come in? I’m not sure about this, but to avoid the homunculus scenario, I think what consciousness does is experience the decision we made unconsciously. Now some might say, well “that’s not me making the decision”. Of course it is. That would be like having a back pain and saying, “that’s not me I’m experiencing”. A person is a whole, including their unconsciousness. If that wasn’t the case then the “me” would be different from everything else going on in our bodies.
So, the necessary element in free will is the reason for making a decision. That reason comes down to making a free choice between the sometimes competing impetuses of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. God-as-transcendent has a purpose in mind for this reality. I think a big part of that purpose is the creation of love, beauty, and meaning. God-as-living, as finite constrained beings also have impetuses. The question is which impetus to embrace and act on.
In addressing the problem of evil in various theological formulations, it is often said that God feels our suffering but there is still an ontological divide between God and us. God doesn’t literally do the suffering. But what if God is literally doing the suffering? In a divine idealism and aspect monism ontology that is the case. I talk in depth about the problem of evil but here let me offer a metaphor to illustrate part of this.
When a woman becomes pregnant and the baby grows in her body, if the baby has some distress, the mother literally suffers that distress. The baby is an aspect of the mother’s body so she literally experiences the suffering of the baby. The baby’s life is part of the mother’s life. Even after giving birth the mother also suffers when the child suffers. Is that just because of an abstraction within the mother’s mind or is there also a deep ontological connection between the mother and the child? I think there is both.
In the Divine Life Communion, both parts of the metaphor that can be illustrative. The child in the womb is illustrative of the ontological unity of God with each individual life – an individual life of God-as-living. When we suffer, God literally does the suffering. The child after birth illustrates that life is finite and constrained. There is distinction to be made between God-as-transcendent and God-as-living but not as some ontological divide, instead as a decision of God to take finite life into God’s self.
If God chose to take on the suffering of finite life, that must mean there is something so very valuable to God about what constrained being can offer. When we or others suffer it can be difficult to understand the reason for it. But perhaps knowing that God is suffering as us can help us through it and feel there is some positive meaning at work.
It can be tempting to think that this life, this universe is all there is. That seems arrogant. If one of the fundamental attributes of God is creativity, then there would be no reason to think there couldn’t be other Divine Lives also, each with its own purpose. One of things that is so apparent in this universe is that it is value-laden. Value permeates everything. Some of the things we value so greatly are love, courage, integrity, honor, sacrifice, vitality, work, and on and on. This reality offers opportunities for those values to become actualized. However, this reality could be just one set of circumstances where those values or others are possible. After all, this universe has a certain set of fine-tuned parameters that make life, as we know it, possible. Perhaps there are other universes where things could be very different but also value-laden in different ways.
Leibniz said that we live in the best of all possible worlds. I also think we do but just for a certain set of purposes God has in mind. There could be many other “best of all possible worlds” with a somewhat different set of purposes in mind.
Now, if this is true, it doesn’t denigrate our world. To the contrary. It means that this world is important for certain divine reasons. In fact, what it means is that we are part of a grand divine multi-world narrative where values are of ultimate importance and we can contribute to that narrative in a powerful way.