A few weeks ago Deb Whitehouse shared with you some ideas about the usefulness of experiencing "God as all" or "nothing but God"--God as the only reality, at the same time recognizing that although that belief is a useful fiction, it's a lousy philosophy. Today I am carrying on in that vein, supplying some of the details that you can adopt in developing a fuller approximation of truth. The ideas that I'm about to share with you are largely extracted from a paper, "Pluralistic Idealism: Only Mind, Many Minds," that I gave a week ago at the SSMR conference in Florida.
I am going to begin by telling you how God can be everywhere without being everything, in fact, that is how God MUST be. Then I'll give you a bit of the history and alternatives leading to this belief, and finally I'll tell you some of the practical values of recognizing the universal pattern of creativity associated with the view that God is everywhere but is not everything.
We all know that all material things are made of atoms, and that atoms are made up of subatomic particles. These are not even particles as we usually think of them, but are energy or force. At the turn of the century Max Planck discovered that energy comes in bursts, known as quanta. Scientists assumed these quanta to be lifeless.
Soon thereafter, (turning from physics to the branch of philosophy known as metaphysics) Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) reinterpreted the quanta of energy as living, meaning that even the simplest of them have some freedom of choice and some slight enjoyment of the creative process. What they choose between is the influence of the past and the possibilities given to them by God. All actual, concrete things--including ourselves--are made up of bursts or occasions of experience (as they often are called). Each developing experience has within it both the earlier-created experiences and God offering the perfect possibilities for fullness of living; thus it is that God is everywhere (since there is no place apart from experience, and no experience without God's being part of it). Yet God is not everything, since if God were everything, there would be no freedom, thus no creativity, no "nuthin," except perhaps a thoroughly frustrated God, since God can create only by means of contributing to co-creation.
We should not think that all aspects of this understanding sprang up within the last century or so. An early form of atomic theory goes back to ancient Greece, where some philosophers figured out that there must be invisibly tiny units of reality. These early atomists assumed that the atoms were unsplittable bits of matter. I am not nearly so much concerned with scientific atomism as I am with philosophical atomism. The greatest philosopher associated with adapting atomism to idealistic metaphysics, prior to Whitehead, was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). He came to the conclusion that atoms were not material at all, but were minds, which he called monads. In the words of philosopher Charles Hartshorne
Leibniz was the first very great philosopher to combine (1) the atomistic insight . . . that the basic forms of change in the world are too subtle to be perceptible to direct vision or touch, with (2) the central Platonic insight that the principle of change or of dynamic unity is psychical, involving at least some of the inherently active functions of thinking, feeling, remembering, perceiving, willing. The seemingly inert masses of physical stuff Leibniz takes to be myriads of lowly souls (monads), imperceptible as distinct individuals, which perceive only in extremely primitive fashion. . . . This was one of the greatest of intellectual discoveries, far indeed from being adequately appreciated after three centuries.
When I refer to mind I am not always talking about high-level awareness such as we enjoy, and as God must enjoy in even greater degree, but I often am referring to primitive levels of awareness: feeling, in other words. Awareness can exist at widely varied levels of complexity. So when an amoeba or one of the particles in a steel bar feels, it doesn't do it to anywhere near the extent that we consciously do.
It is also essential to recognize the difference between single experiences (selves) and collections of them. Thus we see the basic difference between living and non-living things. The chair on which you are sitting is not, as a whole, living, but it is made up of nothing but living experiences. It is a collection of them.
Chairs, and even more so the universe (God's body) and God, SEEM to endure selfsame through change, to be substances, things that last long enough to act and be acted on, to be the underpinning for all that we observe. This is a commonsensical notion, but quantum physics and process thought replace substance with process, activity, energy, experience, understood, in process thought, to develop for only a split second and never change thereafter, although enduring forever.
There is another vital distinction to be drawn between those living things that have supervising experiences (souls, or whatever you may want to call them) and those that don't. My body is not myself, at least in the same sense that my consciousness is. Many of us are happy to proclaim, "I am a soul, and I have a body." The difference between a table and me is, I hope, fairly obvious. But the difference between a tree and a bacterium, or a geranium and an earthworm at its roots, is less clear. Whitehead said that a tree is a democracy. That is, it has no central supervising soul. Our relationships with our bodies are remarkable. Hartshorne writes:
. . . our cells respond to our feelings (and thoughts) because we respond to their feelings (and would respond to their thoughts if they had any). Hurt my cells and you hurt me. Give my cells a healthy life, and they give me a feeling of vitality and at least minimal happiness. My sense of welfare tends to sum up theirs, and their misfortunes tend to become negative feelings of mine. I feel what many cells feel, integrating these feelings into a higher unity. I am somewhat as their deity, their fond heavenly companion. They gain their direction and sense of the goodness of life partly from intuiting my sense of that goodness, which takes theirs intuitively into account. . . . Theologically applied, the principle explains the quality and scope of God's influence . . . God charms every creature irresistibly to whatever extent is compatible with that creature's level of freedom. . . . Because God loves each creature better than it or its fellows can love it, the creature, even though it is necessarily partly self-creative, cannot but make some response to the divine love.
The essence of what I have been talking about is a form of metaphysical idealism. Idealism is the central philosophical foundation for New Thought. Although philosophers disagree as to just what beliefs constitute idealism, I'll say simply that the central feature of metaphysical idealism is the belief that there is nothing but mind (including spirit, soul, and similar terms). However, beyond that, what most people apparently don't realize is that there is more than one type of idealism. Therefore, idealism deserves more careful scrutiny on our part.
In our scrutinizing, we'll be wearing our philosopher's hats. Explanatory power is the first of two criteria that I as a philosopher use for judging the adequacy of any philosophical position: here, particularly how well competing forms of idealism explain, in as much detail as possible, how creation takes place.
My second criterion for judging the adequacy of any basic philosophical position is how well it fits in with the reality of God, freedom, and personal immortality, Immanuel Kant's postulates of practical reason, the foundations for meaningful, ethical living. I think that most New Thoughters accept these beliefs.
In surveying types of idealism, bringing theory and practice together, and, summarizing some of what I have said already, I offer the following theses, which I'll deal with very briefly after listing them:
1. Mind can be understood intelligibly only as experience.
2. In classifying types of metaphysics, we need to include both quality (what kind of something is real) and quantity (how many units of it there are).
3. There are several overall types of idealism. Idealism is not to be identified exclusively with pantheism--God is all--or with idealistic absolutism, which could be called a philosophical approximation of pantheism, generally substituting the term Absolute for God.
4. Idealistic absolutism, in claiming that there is only one mind, is trying to express an essential and commendable commitment to unity, but goes too far, thereby ending up in incoherence.
5. Pluralistic idealism eliminates any notion that in order for everything to be mind there must be only one mind. There are various types of pluralistic idealism, the most satisfactory of which is a Leibnizian-Whiteheadian-Hartshornean panpsychism.
6. Pluralistic idealism of a process-panpsychist-panentheistic sort has many practical values.
My first concern is with the understanding of mind as experience. As I already have suggested, mind-soul-spirit is best understood as experience, indeed only satisfactorily understood as experience.
Most references to mind seem to take it for granted that whatever mind is, it is some thing that thinks, remembers, feels, wills, imagines, perceives, judges, etc. I maintain that to think of mind as a thing is not very helpful. To do so is to indulge in picture-thinking, which we should avoid in philosophical thought. Any adequate understanding of mind has to be in terms of what it does, its activities. Anything else is speculation without ground to support it. Mind is a name for experiences; we know nothing else. Picturing mind as something like a dividing amoeba, or as the sea god Proteus taking various forms is not useful, nor is any simple assertion that the One can become many.
My second concern is with metaphysical types. Materialism maintains that everything is essentially non-mental. However, there are two other non-idealistic philosophies. The better known one is dualism, which maintains that mind and matter are equally real; the other outlook is called neutral monism, which claims that the ultimate reality is an unfathomable something that expresses itself as mind, matter, and infinitely more expressions that we cannot know. In opting for a single ultimate nature of reality and in denying the ultimacy of mind, it has much in common with materialism. I reject these alternatives to idealism.
So far I have been dealing with the side of metaphysical classification concerned with the quality or nature of all that is. There is another side, which deals with quantity, with how many units there are of whatever is. The kind of metaphysics that claims that there is only one mind is both qualitatively and quantitatively monistic--asserting only mind (God or Absolute) and only one unit of it. The type of metaphysics that says that all is mind but that there are many minds is qualitatively monistic but quantitatively (or numerically) pluralistic. If someone refers to monism or pluralism without making clear whether the reference is to "what kind" or to "how many," the meaning is unclear.
My third concern is with the several overall types of idealism. The idealists who are monists both qualitatively and quantitatively are called absolutists. Those who say that there are many minds (and nothing else) are called pluralists, or more specifically idealistic pluralists, or, alternatively, pluralistic idealists.
In addition, but closely related to, the question "Is reality one or many?" is the question "Is reality basically personal or impersonal?" Unfortunately, the terms person and personal are used variously. As I am using these terms they refer to a high-level self that is at least self-conscious, rational, and purposive, whereas lesser selves are conscious at lower levels of complexity. Absolutists generally call the one reality in which they believe by the name the Absolute, rather than by the name God, since God generally implies a personal reality. Since idealistic pluralists consider the supreme reality to be personal, although not anthropomorphic, they have no hesitancy to use the name God.
My fourth concern is with absolutism and its adequacy, or inadequacy. Here's how Edgar Sheffield Brightman described absolutism:
It is the conception that true reality is essentially one mind which "somehow" includes and explains all the variety of being disclosed in experience. It is both qualitative and quantitative monism. In the Orient, this view was set forth in ancient times in that part of the Vedas of India known as the Upanishads. . . . [especially as expounded by] Sharanka (788-820) . . . In Greece, Parmenides, with his doctrine of The One, anticipated absolutism, but its most brilliant interpreter was the Neoplatonist Plotinus . . . In more recent times, one form of absolutism appears in Spinoza, but the most typical and original absolutist was Hegel, who had an immense influence on nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought. For him, the Absolute is one rational mind, forever in process of dialectical development . . . Absolutism seems akin to pantheism, the doctrine that God is all, but most absolutists dislike the identification.In the October 1997 Science of Mind Ernest Holmes says, "God is all there is. There isn't anything else; there never was and never will be." Yet in "What We Believe," published monthly, Holmes affirms belief in "the incarnation of the Spirit in everyone and that all people are incarnations of the One Spirit" and "the immortality, and the continuity of the individual soul, forever and ever expanding."
William R. Sorley observed, "[H]ow the absolute One can manifest itself in a finite many--is not a whit easier to understand than the doctrine of creation or any other substitute for it." It is easy to say that the Absolute somehow individualizes itself as free, responsible beings, but it is impossible to say how this can occur, or, if it could, how it could be consistent with an Absolute that is everything. Thus it fails the test of providing explanatory power. The very meaning of a free, responsible being is one who is distinguishable from all other beings. This does not say that all beings cannot be within God and God within them; that is the position called panentheism, which I enthusiastically endorse. It is failure to recognize this eminently rational position that has led people into sincere, high-minded, yet irrational Absolutism.
My overall conclusion about absolutism is that it expresses an essential and commendable drive toward unity, but in the end it is incoherent. Although the emotional experience of total, unrelieved unity is psychologically powerful, it is metaphysically unacceptable.
This brings me to my fifth concern, the best type of idealistic pluralism. (Now we're getting to the really good stuff.) The kind of pluralistic idealism that maintains that nature is not part of God but is made up of innumerable minds, is generally called panpsychism. Traditional, Leibnizian, panpsychism is a form of substance philosophy, maintaining that there are realities that act and exist selfsame over considerable periods of time, and that they are unilaterally created by God. The new Whiteheadian-Hartshornean panpsychism, or psychicalism, as Hartshorne prefers to call it, is a form of process thought, holding that events, experiences, momentarily-developing minds, are the only concrete realities. Sometimes this outlook is called panexperientialism, meaning all is experience.
This philosophy's conception of God is one of breathtaking beauty. Here is an unquestionably personal, loving, encouraging God, who yet includes within God the entire universe, perfectly remembering forever each experience that ever has come into existence. Here is the God whom Whitehead described as "the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness" and "the great companion-the fellow-sufferer who understands."
Here is an all-inclusive philosophical system with immense explanatory power. The mystery of creation is solved by the arrangement that I have summarized in my co-creation formula: Past + Divine Offer + Choice = Co-Creation. This method of creating is so utterly basic that it must always have been, and always will be. This means that creativity had no beginning; God has always had a body, a universe of some sort. Thus, God never was alone; both divine and finite experiencing always have been.
Not only does a process, panentheistic, panpsychism excel in explanatory power; it provides abundantly Kant's three ethical necessities: God, freedom, and personal immortality, all of which are de-emphasized or denied in Absolutism, by statement or implication--to the extent that Absolutism is consistent.
My sixth and final concern is with the practical values of this pluralistic idealism.
One advantage is found in connection with process thought's elimination of belief in the literal omnipotence of God (which would be inconsistent with the freedom and power that we all enjoy). This results in recognition that God is not responsible for evil; so we can keep faith in life's basic goodness. Another value, emphasized by David Ray Griffin, is that serial selfhood reduces the difference between oneself and others, making love of others easier than in a substance perspective.
In relation to what I call Process New Thought:
(1) You, the universe, and God are new every moment.
(2) You can make a significant new departure at any time.
(3) There is no reason for you to regret "your" past. You were not there: the you of that moment is one of the ancestors of the you of this moment.
(4) No effort ever is wasted. All occasions of experience, including you, become objectively immortal when they complete their split-second subjective careers, and thereafter they influence everything forever, in some degree.
(5) Cooperation is essential. The entire universe is involved in any action.
(6) Love is ultimate, both in God's offering of the best possibilities to all developing experiences and in our giving of ourselves to others, whether bearing our names or other names.
(7) Understanding God as the ultimate lure for feeling, we appreciate the power of gentleness and the futility of force.
(9) We can understand all kinds of prayer and other treatment, ranging from taking an aspirin or undergoing surgery to affirmation or visualization, as ways of enriching the immediate pasts of occasions (usually people) being helped. Treatment does this by reducing the discrepancies between their negative pasts and the possibilities presented by God, enabling new experiences to opt for God's perfect plans more easily than they could otherwise. This removes any need for theorizing that God or any part of God acts in a mechanical way. God is the initiator (taking into account the selections of one's predecessors) and we are the responders with regard to any moment in question.
This is an awesome vision of an open future. I invite you to explore for yourself this exciting, twenty-first century-oriented synergy of ideas.
This writing is an abbreviated version of a presentation given at a Society for the Study of Metaphysical Religion conference on October 17, 1997.
To How Many Is One? by Deborah G. Whitehouse, Ed.D. A preface to the above writing.
To New Thought Movement Home Page, with links to many New Thought resources
To Process Philosophy and the New Thought Movement, containing links to many other process resources.
To New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality, with links to excerpts related to this site.
Created Oct. 30, 1997, by Alan Anderson, Contact Info.
Latest update (not of text) June 19, 1998.