Tag Archives: Idealism

The Modern Age in Search for “God Surrogates”

Even before “the death of God” announced by Nietzsche the modern age has been in search for various unsatisfactory surrogates for the Almighty invented in the post-Enlightenment era. In his book Culture and the Death of God, Terry Eagleton writes, “The history of the modern age is among other things the search for a viceroy for God. Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to tome as forms of displaced divinity.” In this book Eagleton examines the limits of the Enlightenment, the legacies of the Idealists and the Romantics, the Crisis of Culture, the Death of God, and the challenges for Modernism and Post-modernity.

If I were to draw a “mental map” or “cosmogony” of the territory that encompasses the various dimensions of our “ultimate concerns” I would begin by placing Spirit and Nature at the top and bottom the page, so to speak, with Interior Subjective Reality on the left side and Exterior Objective Reality on the right side. *Note: Synonyms for “Spirit” include Freedom, Geist, the sublime, the life force, the ineffable, essence, Being, Process, creativity, the abyss and the Absolute.

What is the relation between Spirit and Nature? This is a primal question. In “metaphysical dualism” Spirit and Nature (Mind and Body) are two separate realities. In various forms of “metaphysical monism” either Spirit reduces to Nature, or Nature is an emanation of Spirit, or both are regarded identical. In Panpsychism Spirit and Nature remain distinct but inseparable. For “metaphysical agnosticism” the question of their relation is regarded as either unknowable or meaningless.

The Left side of our cosmogony is aligned with the Right Brain, with art, poetry, Romanticism, existentialism and the realm of inwardness, passion, subjectivity, participation, quality, sensibility, and taste, in short, the intimate “first person” account of reality. The right side is aligned with the Left Brain, with science, technology, the Enlightenment, positivism, and the realm of outwardness, rationality, objectivity, detachment, quantity, utility, scale, in short, the third person detached account of reality.

In the four corners within the nexus of Above: Spirit, Below: Nature, Left: Interior and Right: Exterior I would place Ken Wilber’s four quadrants: In the upper left quadrant is the internal individual sector of Intentional Purpose. In the external individual sector is Behavioral Action. In the lower left quadrant is the internal collective sector of Cultural Traditions. In the lower right quadrant is the external collective sector of Social Institutions.

Then in the center I would place the integral vision of the universal human in the fullness of his/her identity and in all his/her relations. This integral vision includes the eight dimensions of the body, senses, emotions, imagination, reason, volition, conscience, and intuition.

Terry Eagleton’s thesis is that in the absence of God in the modern secular age various ambitious but inadequate attempts have been made to find God surrogates. These include each of the elements that I’ve just listed in my cosmogony. The Enlightenment generation set forth their surrogates in such ideas as Reason, law, science, progress and democracy. Idealists and Romantics set for counter-surrogates in such ideas as Spirit, Transcendence, Being, Essence and Process.

As the jacket of the book puts it, “Eagleton goes on to discuss the state of religion before and after 9/11, the ironies surrounding Western capitalism’s part in spawning, not only secularism but also fundamentalism, and the reasons while the various surrogates for the Almighty have shown themselves to be unsatisfactory.” One must read his book in order to see why he claims that each of these ambitious attempts to postulate a God surrogate is inadequate. In many cases these various attempts serve to borrow from the Judeo-Christian tradition and to smuggle various new “god concepts” through the back door. His point is that it is harder to be a true atheist than many modern secularists realize.

Eagleton’s astute survey of modern intellectual and cultural history disserves a close reading. Another book that explores much of the same territory is “The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God,” by Peter Watson. The two authors reflect different perspectives on the various attempts to find or create meaning, purpose, value and hope in the modern (and post-modern) world after the cultural “death of God.” However, Eagleton’s book makes more clear than does Watson’s the radical consequences for humanity if we take Nietzsche’s atheism seriously. Eagleton maintains that most atheists today are still living on the borrowed memories, theological concepts and assumptions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, even when they deny and repudiate this tradition. This is true in different ways of the Enlightenment generation and also of the later Idealists and Romantics.

Another curious theme that surfaces in both books is that some modern atheists experience an inner crisis and return to some kind of religious orientation, even as some religious types experience an inner crisis and turn to some kind of atheistic orientation. The traffic flows in both directions. In any case it is a curiously complex, multi-sided and paradoxical age in which we live.





Frames of Mind: Comparing Eight Habits of Thought


There can be little doubt that different persons are endowed with different frames of mind. In considering any topic under the sun different individuals will reveal that they operate according different instinctive habits of thought. I would like to identify eight frames of mind that  pre-condition how a particular person naturally approaches any subject that is of vital interest to them, and especially how they engage in “big conversation” with other minds. These eight frames of mind are the Exclusive, Inclusive, Monistic, Dualistic, Dialectical, Eclectic, Integral and Pluralistic. Some persons will attempt to selectively employ several different assumptive and presupposional approaches on different occasions and within different cultural contexts, but there will tend to be a dominant and secondary approach, with the others in either a tertiary role or even oppositional role.

1. The Exclusive Frame of Mind: All beliefs, ideas, norms and values are assumed to be mutually exclusive, with one view being exclusively right and all others be absolutely wrong. It’s black and white. There’s no room for compromise with falsehood and evil.

2. The Inclusive Cast of Mind: Some beliefs, ideas, norms and values are assumed to be inclusive or assimilative of others, much like an enormously large circle that contains many small circles. One may thus regard one’s one beliefs, ideas, norms and values as ultimately and absolutely True and other beliefs, ideas, norms and values as penultimately and relatively true.

3. The Monistic Frame of Mind: Philosophically there have been two kinds of metaphysical monism. They are known as Idealism and Materialism. Idealism assumes that Matter is an emanation of Mind (Essence or Spirit). Materialism assumes that Mind (Essence or Spirit) is an epiphenomenon of Matter. Absolute forms of Monism can take on the character of Exclusivism, whereas qualified forms of Monism will take on the character of Inclusivism.

4. The Dualistic Frame of Mind: In matters of metaphysics it is assumed that there are two separate realities that have little or nothing to do with each other, or else they are entangled in an eternal cosmic struggle. In matters of ethics and politics it is assumed that there is an irreducible conflict between two and only two points of view. “He who is not for me is against me.” No third point of view is allowed. If one attempts to construct a third point of view, the dualists will attack from both sides. There can be no middle ground. The Aristotelian “Golden Mean” is categorically excluded. One is either for proposition A or proposition B. It is assumed that all propositions are oppositional and antagonistic in nature.

5. The Dialectical Frame of Mind: Thesis and Anti-thesis are unified in a “dialectical synthesis” that is “non-dual” rather than either monistic or dualistic. The relationship involves push and pull, attraction and repulsion, each necessary to the dynamic nature of the relationship. The Yin and the Yang within the Tao serves as a symbol of the dialectical relationship, with the Yin containing the Yang and the Yang containing the Yin. The whole that is greater than the sum of its two parts. Philosophically, the two most well-known forms of dialectical thinking are Hegel’s dialectical idealism and Marx’s dialectical materialism. Dialectical thinkers believe that the opposite of a Great Truth may be another Great Truth. They attempt to integrate binocular (double) vision with a combinational view of the incompassing whole.

6. The Eclectic Frame of Mind: In considering different beliefs, ideas, values, norms the eclectic cast of mind will attempt to toss many of them together like mosaic tiles of many different colors and shapes into a large container, empty them out upon a large surface, and then artfully arrange them in various imaginative, ironic and idiosyncratic ways. This is the post-modern attraction to brick-a-brack. No attempt is made to organize or arrange them into a comprehensive and coherent gestalt. Bits and pieces of multiple traditions are represented, but how they connect to each other is left unstated. It may be assumed that in our informational and culturally saturated world that any attempt at a comprehensive vision or “theory of everything” is futile. What we have are many unrelated but interesting pieces of several different jig-saw puzzles that don’t fit together. They belong to different puzzles but it’s fun to display them artfully in their incommensurable diversity.

7. The Integral Frame of Mind: Some people feel compelled to  integrate the variety of human beliefs, ideas, norms and values, as well as historical epochs, cultural traditions, intellectual domains and life practices into a comprehensive and coherent whole. Integral thinkers construct maps, models and paradigms that attempt to re-present the full spectrum of consciousness and culture across the ages. Historically, this may be expressed as encompassing the primal, ancient, medieval, modern, post-modern and trans-modern ages of man. Developmentally, this may be expressed as stages in the unfolding of being, the evolution of matter, and the awakening of the Universal Human. Of course various integral thinkers have different myths, maps, models and paradigms of reality (“what is”) and they dispute with those who are equally committed to different myths, maps, models and paradigms. It is easy here to forget that “the map is not the territory.” Some integral thinkers who grasp this concept in the abstraction resist it when their own model comes under criticism from those who are passionately beholden to a different “theory of everything.”

8. The Pluralist Cast of Mind: The philosophical pluralist is a pragmatist who seeks an encompassing and coherent view of prime reality and the world in which we live, but without any exclusivist or absolutist assumptions. Pluralists recognize that there are many unique and distinct, complex and creative ways of being human and of constructing rich cultures and great civilizations. Unlike eclectics they prefer to understand each complex and creative individual and culture within its own highly nuanced and “thick” context, rather than to lift it “a-historically” out of its larger symbolic and functional context for purposes of commercial kitsch. Intellectual and cultural historians tend to exist on a spectrum between ideological dualists and pragmatic pluralists. The monistic and dualistic ideologues tend to reduce the story of history to a single Idea or to an ideological struggle between opposing forces that reiterates itself in different language and symbols from age to age. This translates into the conflict model of human history. This approach is the home of the proverbial Hedgehog who has found One Big Idea.

The pluralist pragmatists tend to view the story of history as a complex multi-dimensional movement between multiple forces that all interact with each other in patterned but unpredictable ways. This approach is the home of the proverbial Foxes who has Many Small Ideas rather than One Big One.

Pluralistic Pragmatists prefer to give each realm of knowledge and domain of life “its proper due” but to limit the tendency of each realm and domain to over-reach in its ambition to apply its methods to everything under the sun.  They appreciate the distinction Pascal made between the esprit de geometrie and the esprit de finesse. Neither esprit is higher or deeper or better than the other.

As Jacques Barzun, himself a cultural historian and pragmatic pluralist puts it, Science-Technology (geometrie) and Humanities-Arts (finesse) belong to radically divergent modes of conceiving and working with reality. In Science-Technology the elements and defintions are clear, abstract, and unchangable, but stand outside the ordinary ways of thought and speech. In the opposite realm of Intuitive-Aesthetic thought, the elements come out of the common stock and are know by common names, which elude definition. Thus it is hard to reason justly about them because they are so numerous, mixed, and confusing: there is no method.

The spirit of Pluralistic Pragmatism seeks to honor both sensibilities or casts of mind but without allowing the former to become hardened or reified as scientism and mechanism and the latter to become reified as intellectualism and aestheticism. Pragmatism cares about the consequential “cash value” of ideas for human fulfillment, cultural literacy, civil society and a sustainable world.

In his introduction to the anthology, “A Jaques Barzun Reader,” Michael Murray puts it this way: “The pragmatic cultural historian “deals with ideas, but with ideas as they flourish in the marketplace–some derived from the sytems and no longer pure, other from the minds of reformers, politicians, artists, and indeed anybody. It’s limits are fixed by the breadth of the practitioner’s knowledge, eloquence, and wit.”

Three Frames of Reality: The Natural, Human & Spiritual Dimensions

three overlapping circles

To what extent are we able to encompass and comprehend the Supreme Reality with our finite human minds? What if the Supreme Reality is an infinite and ever-expanding horizon? If the finite cannot encompass and comprehend the infinite, except perhaps in some tangential or partial way, how does this influence our perception of the encompassing and comprehensive?

With what “singular unitive frame”,”multiple pluralistic frames” or “overlapping integrative frame” of knowledge and experience are we to employ in order to symbolize, evoke and represent what we perceive to be the fundamental nature of reality?

For centuries human beings have created “cosmogonies”, that is, mental maps, models and paradigms to symbolize, evoke, express and represent what they conceive to be the ultimate and supreme reality. The impulse to envision, grasp, discover and express the Supreme Reality, what philosopher Karl Jaspers calls the Comprehensive and Encompassing, seems to be innate in human nature.

In attempting to envision, grasp, discover and express the Supreme Reality, ought we to rely primarily upon the Inductive Language of Empirical Science, the Deductive Language of Rational Philosophy, or the Chronological Event-Driven Language of History, or all three? What “epistemological status and explanatory role”, if any, ought we to grant the Symbolic, Archetypal, Metaphorical, Analogical, Parabolic, Dialogical, Narrative, Emotive, Aesthetic and Ethical ways of knowing and being? What attention ought we to pay, of any, to the primal, elliptical , intuitive and evocative “languages” that may include Revelation, Illumination, Vision, Dream, Epiphany, Theophany, Music, Art, Symbol, Ritual, Poetry, Myth, Parable, Narrative, Drama and the Arts?

Temperamental predisposition and epistemological preference will strongly influence which of these “ways of knowing and being” we choose to privilege as we inquire into the nature of the Supreme Reality of “What Is.” Just as there is “no way of accounting for taste,” so there may also be no way of accounting for psychological differences and epistemological preferences.

There are two books in my library by authors with very different casts of mind but that I think should be read back-to-back. The first of these books is Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius (the naturalist), Dante (the transcendentalist), and Goethe (the humanist), by George Santayana. The second of these books is The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness, by Raimon Panikkar.

Santayana is a scientific and empirical naturalist, an aesthetic and sacramental Roman Catholic, and a philosophical and literary humanist — with a love for the arts, learning, imagination and culture. He recognizes a dialectical tension between the naturalistic, spiritual and humanistic aspects of his own complex identity, but he believes it is the creative task of future “philosophical poets” will be to fuse these three horizons of meaning. His intellectual and cultural sensibilities are more European and American.

Panikkar famously remarked, “I left as a Christian, found myself as a Hindu, and returned as a Buddhist, and that without ceasing to be a Christian.” Throughout his scholarly career he distinguished himself as an articulate voice for “deep ecumenism” and “dialogical dialogue” not only between the world’s religions but also between religious, secular, humanistic and spiritual perspectives on life. He envisions them as differentiated yet overlapping and mutually corrective perspectives rather than mutually oppositional and antagonistic.

His approach is radically different from the “dualistic” mode of public discourse on science, art, philosophy, and religion that is common enough in today’s world. Panikkar differentiates and integrate the various horizons of human knowledge and experience, combining introspection and observation, because he is not an “absolutist” or “literalist” about religion, science, or philosophy. But neither is he a “post-modern relativistic  ironist.” His approach is relational and dialogical, valuing both the tacit and explicit ways of knowing, much like Michael Polanyi, author of Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension. His epistemology cares about “Truth”. For Panikkar the search for “encompassing truth” about the phenomena of experience and the acquisition of knowledge must take into account both the contents of introspection and observation, intuition and sensation, emotion and cognition, participation and detachment, intimacy and grandeur, perception and judgment. 

In addition to The Cosmotheandric Experience, his other books include The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery; The Unknown Christ of Hinduism; The Trinity and World Religions; The Vedic Experience; Invisible Harmony; and Cultural Disarmament: The Way of Peace.

Throughout all his writings Panikkar seeks to simultaneously  differentiate and integrate the Cosmic, Human and Transcendental dimensions of reality. He sees no need for a “culture war” between science and religion, and views such conflicts as largely rooted in misunderstandings and “reifications” concerning both the nature of science and the nature of religion.

Philosopher Keith Ward arrives as a similar conclusion in his book, The Big Questions in Science and Religion. In the chapter entitled “Has Science Made Belief in God Obsolete,” he writes:

“It is just possible that we are at the beginning of a fourth stage (of human historical evolution beyond the three stages of local pre-literate, classical and text-based reasoning, and informed critical inquiry) of a truly global consilience among many different cultures, and among religion, the humanities, and science….

“If religion is fully humanized and open to the critical methods and established truths of the sciences, and if science is used in the service of human welfare and the flourishing of all sentient beings, there can be a long and positive future for human life and for whatever forms of life may develop from it. That is only likely to occur if scientists and religious believers engage in serious, sensitive, and enquiring conversation. For that to happen, both fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism will have to be set aside in favor of something more self-critical and humane. If that does happen, religion will not disappear, but it may, and it should, change.” Of course so will science continue to change as well.

Some writers and thinkers who engage the three frames of Nature, Humanity and Spirit will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to reduce both Human Beings and Transcendent Spirit  to “epiphenomenon” of Nature, which they conceive as being exclusively immanent and physical. They therefore employ the strategies of “reductionism” (of mind to matter), elimination (of mind as “the ghost in the machine”) and “strong emergence” from primally lifeless and mindless matter to the spontaneous and contingent emergence of both life and mind.

Others will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to conceive of both Nature and Human Beings as either Free Creations or Necessary Emanations of Spirit. Western “theistic” religions tend toward the idea of “free creation” while eastern “pantheistic” and “acosmic” religions tend toward the idea of necessary emanation of Transcendental Mind or Universal Spirit.

Still others believe they ahave good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to envision the Supreme Reality as Divided between the Realms of Spirit and Matter. This world view we call metaphysical or ontological dualism. Epistemological dualists believe that we know “the really real” in two ways that are related to these two realms of Spirit and Matter. We know the spiritual reality through the methods of illumination and intuition, introspection and contemplation. We know the natural reality through the methods of empirical science.

Still others will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to envision Human Beings as a “dialectical tension and creative synthesis” between the dimensions of Invisible Spirit and Visible Nature, of eternal essence and temporal existence. They will regard Mind and Matter as mutally causal, although some who hold this middle view will tilt toward the primacy of Mind while others will tilt toward the primacy of Matter. Perhaps this is what Pascal had in mind when he said that “man is the glory and the scum of the universe.” We seem to possess two natures in one. Mind and Matter may not be dual realities so much as a single reality with two aspects, “the implicit order” and “the explicit order” as David Bohm put it. “Panpsychism”, “process pan-experientialism”, “neutral monism”, “dual-aspect idealism” and “non-materialist physicalism” are all associated with this integral view that seeks to stand mid-way between the worldviews of  Idealism and Materialism but without splitting into Cartesian Dualism.

In his books The Big Questions in Science and Religion, and again in More than Matter: Is There More to Life than molecules? Keith Ward summarizes each of these interpretative perspectives. His own orientation seems to a complex blend of “dual-aspect idealism” and “open or process theism”, but he offers a generally fair and informed treatment of other perspectives, including those like “materialism” with which he disagrees.

Being something of a “sober realist” about human nature and the prospects for the human future, I don’t expect to see a new breed of philosophical poets and transcendental humanists “set aside” the polarities between “religious fundamentalists” and “atheistic fundamentalists” any time soon, for each of these is having way “too much fun” demonizing, dehumanizing and ridiculing the other. If Chris Hedges, author of When Atheism Becomes a Religion, is right when he says that  “war is a cause that gives life meaning,” then it is also surekt true that engaging in “culture wars” must also give life meaning…at least for some folks who need “enemies” to conquer and vanquish.

One of the paradoxes is that the more they violently oppose and attack each other in their mutually exclusive objectivist and literalist ideologies that more similar they appear to those on the outside. A relational and dialogical epistemology and methodology that honors both the Tacit and Explicit dimensions of reality and ways of knowing has a different orientation than either pre-modern religious dogmatists, the modern scientific objectivists, and the post-modern ironic subjectivists.

“Culture wars” of many kinds – religious and secular, political and economic – are probably here to stay. But it is encouraging to consider the possibility that there remains the option of “The Third Culture” that transcends exclusive polarities and mutual hostilities. Nature, Humanity and Spirit remain as “three frames of reality” that will continue to reconfigure themselves in different kinds of relationships to each other from age to age. They each function as “master templates” to help us understand our relationship to the Encompassing and Comprehensive, to the Supreme Reality in which we “live and move and have our being.”

The Transcendentalist Vision: Affirming Nature, Life, Mind, Meaning, Values and Hope


There can be no doubt that “transcendentalal idealism” and “scientific naturalism” represent two divergent worldviews. Transcendentalists have no need to deny the partial truths and relative values of various theories and discoveries within the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences, but they view reality as layered in such a way that a Higher Order of Reality informs and inhabits the physical dimension of existence. For  transcendentalists there is no need for a zero-sum debate as between Creationists and Evolutionists.  For transcendentalists the relation between transcendent Spirit and immanent Nature is not oppositional or even separate as in dualism. Conflict would only happen between the physical substance view and the mental ideation view if either the Naturalistic Perspective or the Transcendental Perspective were to dogmatically insist that it ALONE has perceived, discovered and contained the totality of reality and the summation of truth. Of course there are those who take this stance, but it is an unnecessary one.

Why does one who has been raised into the modern secular culture of scientific naturalism become a transcendentalist? Perhaps it is only when one has read the many bleak and pessimistic accounts of reality that have been given by various “sober naturalists” and has followed the “logic” of naturalism to its stark conclusion of nihilistic absurdity and existential despair that one might be ready to search for a viable alternative. “Sunny naturalists” deny any connection between naturalism and nihilism while sober ones not only admit it but wear it as a badge of honor, boasting that they at least have the stoic courage to admit that ultimately our entire existence is meaningless and futile. In my last blog I quoted three “sober naturalists” who express a vision of “meaningless existence” and “unyielding despair.” I could quote a dozen more. Yet “sunny naturalists” deny any link between naturalism and nihilism, and distance themselves from those naturalists with a more bleak assessment of man’s fragile and fleeting place within our accidental and unintended universe.

To be fair to scientific naturalism there are those writers like Paul Davies (a physicist), Ursula Goodenough (a biologist), and Loren Eiseley (a paleontologist) who do not drive a wedge between science and spirituality, immanence and transcendence, physics and metaphysics, but instead approach the Sacred Mystery within the context of their scientific disciplines. Their “religious naturalism” leans up against the door of transcendentalism without opening the door and walking through it.

The transcendentalist perspective begins with a spiritual intuition that the natural endowments of organic life, conscious mind, tacit knowledge and critical intelligence all point toward a Higher Source that informs and dwells within the physical dimension of existence but is not entirely limited or contained by it. It begins with the “tacit knowledge” that our temporal existence is rooted in Universal Being, and that the transcendental ideas of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love are not merely nominal reification of linguistically and culturally constructed sentimentality but real and enduring insights into the fundamental nature of reality.

Of course this is where transcendentalists and naturalists must “agree to disagree.” Transcendentalists maintain that without these transcendental ideas from a higher source and our anticipatory future quest “to be and to know” are both ultimately frustrated. If our entire existence accidentally and pointlessly evolved from an originally  lifeless and mindless universe, and if all the processes of our human existence and experience can be fully explained by appeals to physical, chemical, psychological and social mechanisms, and if the whole cosmic, natural, historical and human drama ultimately ends in utter extinction and annihilation, then why should we care about the charade of our fleeting and ephemeral existence? “It’s all gonna fade.” Further, why should we trust our minds=brains to know the truth of “what is” if “mind” reduces to “brain” and “brain” reduces to the accidental, mechanistic, deterministic and probabilistic epiphenomenon of lifeless and mindless matter? Why should “life” and “mind” matter in a fundamentally mindless and lifeless universe that produced us as a sa kind of freak accident, a highly improbable fluke?

Naturalists, on the other hand, criticize transcendentalists for positing the timeless reality of metaphysical ideas such as Being, Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love “without a shred of scientific evidence” as understood within boundaries of empirical scientific method and the assumed worldview of scientific naturalism. Naturalists will maintain that while such “tacit knowledge” and “critical intelligence” that includes our experiences of subjectivity,  intersubjectivity, metaphors, aesthetics, symbols and rituals, art and music are personally meaningful and scientifically interesting, they are finally reducible to observable and measurable physical and bio-chemical processes, combined with psychological mechanisms and cultural socialization.  The need of and evidence for transcendental ideas is therefore categorically denied.

Transcendentalists respond by saying that unless our transitory and improbable existence is rooted in Transcendent Being, and unless our physical, biological, psychological and social existence is informed by the “innate ideas” of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love, these words have no real meaning. In this case our quest for the truth of “what is” reduces “mind” to “brain” and “sentient life” to “dead matter” in a pointless universe in which the most honest response is one of futility and despair.

When those who formally deny any appeal to these transcendental ideas continue to live as if these ideas did make some existential and moral claim upon them, they are not being consistent with their own presuppositions. They are living a contradiction, declaring that life is ultimately meaningless and futile while continuing to live as if it were at least temporarily meaningful and hopeful, and as if the transcendental ideas still had some existential and moral value for them.

This was Nietzsche’s criticism of his fellow naturalists who did not see that the logic of naturalism demands a radical “transvaluation of values,” “the death of God” and with it the death the compassionate humanitarian values associated with democratic liberalism. Nietzshe viewed these as rooted in a synthesis of the transcendental ideals of the Socratic, Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Jewish and Christian traditions, and so he wanted to replace them with the Promethean “anti-christ” and “super-man” for “whom might makes right.” In Nietzsche’s view the heroic “will to power” must replace the saintly “power of love” and the philosophical search for “eternal truth.”  “Sunny naturalists” want to continue  feeding upon the fruits of our civilization’s transcendental traditions while severing its roots. Nietzsche saw this as a cowardly evasion by sunny naturalists and liberal humanists.

Some transcendentalists emphasize the timeless and eternal nature of Being in Itself. These are identified with Neo-Platonism, Vedanta,  the Perennial Philosophy and The Traditionalists, among others.

The term Perennial philosophy was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley, who was profoundly influenced by Vivekanda’s Neo-Vedanta and Universalism,[26] in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy. He defined the perennial philosophy as:

“the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”

Other transcendentalists emphasize the evolutionary, emergent, novel and creative nature of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being that is also the Lure of the Future. They include process philosophers and theologians, including the contributions of Tielhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Henry Bergson, Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, among others. Ken Wilber and other Integral Thinkers have combined elements of both the Perennial and Process philosophical traditions, along several other traditions as well. Wilber’s placement of various major intellectual theorists within his four ontological and epistemological quadrants is brilliant and worth examining, but that will have to wait for another occasion.

Perennial Philosophers and Process Philosophers are both critics of the worldview of scientific naturalism, also called materialism and physicalism. Perennial Philosophers locate the transcendent reality metaphorically “above” the mundane world of the senses even while it dwells within it. Process Philosopher locate the transcendent reality “ahead” in the anticipatory future. Some Process Philosophers call themselves pan-en-theists to distinguish themselves from pantheists. They may also call themselves panpsychists or pan-experientialists to distinguish themselves from both dualists and idealists. A brief visit to Wikipedia will clarify these distinctions.

What Perennialists and process philosophers, pantheistic idealists and panentheistic panpsychists have in common is their view that the “later and more complex” emergence of Life and Mind, and  of tacit knowledge and critical intelligence are more disclosing of “what is” and “what may yet become” than the reductive naturalist’s appeal to “earlier and simpler” forms of inorganic matter various deterministic mechanisms.

Let me sum up: For transcendentalists of every kind there is a shared conviction that unless our temporal existence is grounded in Universal Being and our psychological and cultural values are rooted in an appeal to such transcendent ideas as Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love, the human enterprise must inevitably and ultimately be frustrated and end in meaningless and futility. I suspect that it is only when one becomes disillusioned with scientific naturalism as a total worldview that one considers alternatives such as transcendentalism. The reverse is also true. After the era of American transcendentalism that was led by such figures as Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau and Whitman, there was a counter-movement by the “anti-transcendentalists” who followed, expressed in the writings of Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, and others. The modern literary and philosophical movements of realism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, absurdism, parody and ironism tell a story of descent into the abyss, life rendered increasingly tragic, cruel, ridiculous, irrational, fatalistic, meaningless absurd. Scientific naturalism as a reductive and mechanistic worldview has nothing to offer us that will essentially alter this story of our collective cultural descent into the abyss. Transcendentalism matters because it affirms the primacy of life, mind, meaning and hope in a way that naturalism is not able to do.

Cosmogenesis: The Linguistic Binaries of Existence, Life, Consciousness & Civilization


Amidst a lifetime of “general reading” across the liberal arts curriculum I’d noticed a recurring pattern that presents itself on all levels of existence, life, consciousness and civilization. It is the binary nature of human language in expressing the dynamics of perceived experience. It is through the invocation and utilization of different linguistic binaries that we engage in a kind of imaginative “cosmogenesis” or world-making.

Allow me to illustrate this pervasive “binary habit of mind” as it occurs in the various intellectual disciplines and cultural domains. What follows is simply a starter-list. I’m sure you can add to it:

RELIGION: Prophetic & Mystical. Transcendence & Immanence. Monotheism & Polytheism. Oneness & Plurality. Union & Separation. Spiritual & Material. Immortality & Absorption. Eschatology & Apocalypse.

PHILOSOPHY: Atomism & Platonism. Materialism & Idealism. Rationalism & Empiricism. Dogmatism & Pragmatism. Being & Becoming. Essence & Existence. Possibility & Limitation. Freewill & Determinism. Truth & Beauty. Goodness & Love.

MYTHOLOGY: Psyche & Eros. Mars & Venus. Innocent & Orphan. Caretaker & Warrior. Creator & Destroyer. Lover & Seeker. Ruler & Magician. Sage & Fool.

HISTORY: Spartan & Athenian. Heroic & Picturesque. Civic & Idealist. Soldier & Artist. Industrialist & Agrarian.

LANGUAGE: Symbol & Sign. Subjective & Objective. Noun & Verb. Abstract & Concrete. Fact & Meaning. Literal & Figurative.

LITERATURE: Prose & Poetry. Realist & Romantic. Tragedy & Comedy. History & Fantasy.

ARTS: Gothic & Renaissance. Baroque & Classical. Romantic & Modern.

PHYSICAL SCIENCES: Fire & Water. Earth & Sky. Space & Time. Mass & Gravity. Particle & Wave. Matter & Energy. Dark Matter & Dark Energy. Substance & Form. Fixed & Moving. Closed System & Open System. Simplicity & Complexity. Entropy & Emergence.

NATURAL SCIENCES: Systole & Diastole. Birth & Death. Youth & Aging. Symbiosis & Predation. Female & Male. Mechanism & Organism.

PSYCHOLOGY: Behaviorism & Psychoanalysis. Humanistic Psychotherapy & Existential Psychotherapy. Introversion & Extraversion. Intuition & Sensation. Feeling & Thinking. Perception & Judgement. Intimacy & Detachment. Altruism & Egoism. False Self & True Self. Images & Words. Orality & Literacy.

SOCIOLOGY: Progress & Regress. Patricians and Plebeians. Ruling Class & Working Class. Interests & Values. Economics & Culture. Idealists & Realists. Optimists & Pessimists. Utopians & Dystopians. Progressives & Traditionalists. Communitarians & Libertarians. Anarchists & Totalitarians. Masculinists & Feminists. Authoritarians & Egalitarians. Entrepreneurs & Ecologists. Transcendentalists & Utilitarians. Evolution & Revolution.

Well, you get the idea. The list could go on. Of course not all language is binary in nature, but it is surprising how much of our language is predicated upon a binary construction. What are some things that different people do with these binaries?

Some people prefer to privilege one side of the binary over the other and become its partisan advocate. They see these polarities as mutually exclusive and feel compelled to choose one at the expense of the other. This is the conflict model whereby all values are oppositional and, by implication, all existence is a struggle between mutually incompatible choices.

Others prefer to collapse them into each other in one way or the other. For example, someone might claim that all altruism is really egoism in disguise. Someone else might claim that what everyone really wants, even if they don’t know or admit it, is to live in love, harmony and peace, not hate, conflict and violence. To use another example, someone might claim that the immanent physical world was either created or emanated from spiritual world.  Someone else might claim just the opposite, that the transcendent realm of reflexive consciousness and spiritual values evolved over billions of years as a improbably epiphenomenon of an originally non-living physical world.

Pantheist monists will claim that there never was any real duality because everything real is ultimately one undifferentiated transcendent Absolute, Oversoul or Spirit that enjoys the “play” of manifesting itself in the illusion of duality. Materialist monists will claim that there never was any real duality because the world of mind and spirit is a kind of optical illusion, a ghost in the machine of impersonal nature.

Others prefer to hold the binary values together in a “dialectical tension” as differentiated yet necessary to each other, but without any grand synthesis. For example, someone might say that the world is made up of something like magnetic forces that have both a negative and a postive polarity, and that both polarities are necessary for existence, life, consciousness and civilization, even though they seem to be in perpetual tension with each other.

And still others prefer to resolve and reconcile the dialectical tension between “thesis” and “antithesis” by introducing a third element of synthesis. There are both religious and secular versions of triadic integration. In Orthodox Christianity the vision of the Holy Trinity serves this function, as the divine “I” of the Father and “Thou” of the Eternal Son are united in the Eternal Communion of the “Holy Spirit” who co-arises from the Father and the Son. Hegel’s Dialectical Idealism borrows from Christianity but for Hegel the Dialectical Synthesis is consummated not with the transcendent Kingdom of God but with the immanent achievement of Hegel’s German Idealism. Marx’s Dialectical Materialism he turns Hegel on his head, whereby the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie will pass through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” to create a new classless society.

Still others prefer to construct a “pluralistic integrative ” method and model of reality that transcends both binary and triadic ways of thinking. Ken Wilber does this with his All Quadrants and All Levels (AQAL) approach. His four ontological (and epistemological) quadrants are Internal-Individual, External-Individual, Internal Collective and External-Collective (that is, Intention, Behavior, Culture and Society). His five levels of being are Matter, Body, Mind, Soul and Spirit, rooted in the ancient tradition of the Great Chain of Being.

For Ken Wilber these quadrants and levels ultimately converge into a non-dualist whole. Materialists view Wilber’s model as archaic and medieval, byzantine and unnecessary to understand the “real world” of physical substances, forms and processes of nature without all the metaphysical slicing and dicing of reality into quadrants and levels, holons, spheres, lines and stages. Idealists and materialists talk past each other.

Still others seem to be content to simply accept and live with the radical plurality and diversity of existence, life, consciousness and civilization without needing to “pluralistically integrate” it into four quadrants and five levels of the Ontological One with Ken Wilber, or “reduce” it to the empirical parameters and quantifying methods of math, physics, chemistry, geology, botany and biology on the other.

It’s my observation that novelists, short story writers, essayists, humorists, satirists, poets and playwrights generally seem to be of this latter sensibility, even though they may engage many of the common binaries of life. Some philosophical novelists, poets and essayists do seem to make a gesture toward theoretical and practical integration of the great binaries of existence, life, consciousness and civilization. However, the deeper instinct creative fiction and nonfiction writers sees to be to “live the questions” and to embrace the experience of Mystery, Ambiguity, Plurality and Paradox rather than to “solve the problems of existence” through either dualistic, monistic, dialectical or evolutionary theories that are the offspring of religion, philosophy, history and science.

What creative writers seem to care about  most is a polyphonic and variegated immersion into the complexity of lived experience and human relationships, not the resolution of abstract philosophical or concrete scientific problems. And yet because creative writers are human beings before they are writers they cannot help but be at least vaguely aware of the binary pattern that appears throughout the entire “cosmogenesis” of existence, life, consciousness and civilization.

What one does with these linguistic binaries is a matter of some consequence. Creative writers often do have a “tell” — as they say of the world of poker. They do have instinctive and habitual  “literary responses” to the binaries within the circle of their life experiences, but their responses are usually expressed below the writer’s own field of vision and threshold of consciousness.

To become aware of how we respond to the linguistic binaries of our experiences and relationships is to become attentive to our own creative process of cosmogenesis or world-making. Whether  these these pervasive linguistic binaries are “objective realities” (like Plato’s Forms or Kant’s Categories) or “nominal abstractions” that serve us as useful fictions is a question for further philosophical discussion.