Coming Out as a Liberal Christian

comments 35

I have recently found religion.

Let me very quickly follow this up with a ‘negative creed’ of the things I don’t believe in the literal truth of:

  • I don’t believe in a supernatural person.
  • I don’t believe that the world was created in 6 days.
  • I don’t believe in either the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
  • I don’t believe that Jesus died for your sins and that if you don’t believe this before you die God will punish you for eternity thereafter.
  • I don’t believe that gay sex is sinful.

I’ve had a 21 year break from Christianity (since I upset my grandmother by refusing to get confirmed Catholic aged 14), because, like most people, I thought that these views were inconsistent with being a Christian. I have recently discovered that this is not the case.

My positive creed is a little harder to state. I believe in what William James called ‘the More’; what Plato called ‘the Form of the Good’. That is to say, I believe that we are aware, in our experience of beauty and our deepest moral experiences, of something real, of great value, which goes beyond the reality which empirical science makes known to us. We are aware in these experiences of a certain depth and profundity to reality. I take religion to be a system of metaphor-involving, institutionalised practices, aimed at helping individuals and communities to live in greater awareness of this ineffable aspect of reality.

[For philosophers: I’m basically a Platonist about value and a fictionalist about religious discourse]

Why organised religion? Why not just hook up to ‘the More’ through art or one’s own moral efforts? This is of course an option, but I think it’s pretty difficult to be spiritually healthy in the twenty first century, and most of us need a little help. Communities are not bound together in the way they used to be. And the lonely individual is subject to the powerful forces of global capitalism: privately owned media, relentless advertising, ever greater alienation from the fruits of one’s labour. At its best, organised religion is a powerful counterbalance to the negative forces of modern life.  What finally persuaded me was how UK churches are responding to our current government’s cruel attack on the poor and vulnerable, both by feeding the hungry and by speaking out against this grave social injustice.

Why Christianity? For me, it’s partly because it’s the culture I know. I don’t take Christianity to be the One True Religion, but just one framework for relating to the Good; and it’s the one that’s most familiar to me (although the church I’m currently involved is radically different to the one I was raised in). But also it’s because I want to be part of a religion that has at its heart the values expressed in the character of Christ: radical love and forgiveness; identification with the poor and excluded; angry challenging of corrupt authority and meaningless tradition.

The purpose of this post is to confess rather than to evangelise, but I would like to let people know of the existence of inclusive, politically radical, theologically liberal, pro-LGBT churches; churches which don’t demand literal belief in a personal God, and which have a powerful, creative and contemporary approach to liturgy. You never know, it might be for you.

For those interested in reading some liberal theology, I recommend Marcus Borg and Karen Armstrong.

Below is a photo of the clergy from my Church, St. Bride’s, wearing rainbow dog collars in support of LGBT Christians.


The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. Well.

    You go, then.


    My only quibble is, perhaps, a selfish one, as a fellow traveler, philosophically speaking. Whenever I read or hear reductive materialists make their case, there is always a slight sneer, either an overt or implied accusation that people like me (and you), i.e. qualophiles, panpsychists, etc, are trying to sneak God in the back door. At the very least, we are trying to cling to the specialness of the human soul in the face of all the scientific advances of the last few centuries. “Don’t worry!” they say. “There is plenty of room for awe and wonder in a material world! Let go of your superstitions! Come on in – the water’s fine!” I respect your stand and the integrity of the path that lead you there, but I worry that One Of Us might help make the case for The Other Side.

    Then again, screw it. Let the chips fall where they may.

    • John,

      I had exactly the same worry. I worry about inviting suspicion regarding my views on consciousness, or being pigeonholed, ‘Oh, he just thinks that because he’s religious’. But I think I feel strongly enough about the religious stuff to make it worth the risk. We’ll see…

      • It’s pretty sad that that’s such a worry is well founded: that professional philosophers would commit such a blatant ad hominem.

  2. In my view the LGBT concern has validity when it speaks out against disregard, disrespect, discrimination and oppression but I do not believe that a person’s sexuality should be a matter of either pride or shame.

    • Dafydd,

      I don’t see why one shouldn’t be proud of one’s sexual orientation. I guess I think positive pride works to counterbalance the discrimination that you do worry about.

  3. Hi Philip
    Interesting. I think the two things that move you — the idea of ‘the More’ + the charitable work of the church — are very central to the lives of many christian believers, much more central than a lot of ‘new atheist’ critics recognise. The British labour movement had its origins in nonconformism too, so it also makes sense that a socialist of your kind would be drawn to it.

    From the philosophical point of view, it’s the idea of ‘the More’ that interests me, and what commitment to it involves, what kind of temperament in requires in someone… Have you read Nagel’s essay, ‘Secular Philosophy & the Religious Temperament’? It’s very good I think.

    Anyway, thanks for raising these issues and ‘coming out’ as it were — these are much more interesting questions about religion than the philosophy 101 you get from Dawkins et al.

    All the best

    (PS Do you mean Karen Armstrong?)

    • Tim,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I haven’t read that Nagel article but certainly will. I would defend belief in the More in the way Platinga defends belief in God in his discussion of ‘reformed epistemology’. It seems to me when I’m deeply moved by music (to take a hackneyed example) that I’m aware of some real non-empirical aspect of the world which is of great value, and I don’t accept that I have less reason to take that experience to be veridical than I have to take my sense experience to be veridical. I think that it’s the involvement of such awareness that makes the difference between art and entertainment (I’m oversimplifying a bit).

      Unlike Platinga I don’t feel I’m aware of a personal God, although I think it’s natural and useful in religious practice to conceive of the More as person-like. And I am persuaded by the problem of evil that a personal God is extremely unlikely. So I would sharply distinguish my faith from faith which involves (i) revelation (the bible as the literal word of God, its writers being guided by the Holy Spirit), (ii) a personal relationship with a personal being (especially where there are regular interventions and signs to indicate what God wants the believer to do).

      Interestingly, what I’ve ended up with is pretty much the faith my parents have. I reckon a lot of Jews have a fictionalist/semi-fictionalist conception of their religious practice. I’m curious as to whether Islam, with its emphasis on the Qur’an as revelation, can be made consistent with fictionalism about a personal God.

      I’m intending to write on this stuff when I finally finish my book on consciousness (hopefully soon!).

      You not a believer yourself?

      Yes, Karen, not Katherine – thanks for pointing that out!

      • David Alexander says

        Re: “I am persuaded by the problem of evil that a personal God is extremely unlikely.”

        1st of all perhaps I’m just unfamiliar with the terminology, but don’t know quite what “personal God” means.

        I guess the issue you mention is basically How can evil exist in a world created by an all-good God? Why would he allow it?

        Perhaps my view is simplistic: He created universe of various cosmoses containing more complexity than we can possibly comprehend. He didn’t create a perfect little self-contained show house. How can an entire universe consist only of light without dark? Happiness without sadness? If we are not materialists or dualists (sorry, I’m probably using these terms in non-philosophically-correct ways) then don’t we accept humans have free will? That’s what it means to be uniquely human, isn’t it? We can make conscious choices that animals can’t. Perhaps God’s “all-good”ness is demonstrated in that he apparently goes out of his way time and again to send messengers who all offer pretty concrete guidance on how to make the right choices to live more as he would wish for us.
        Would a loving parent wish to have puppet children?

  4. David,

    By ‘personal God’ I mean a God with the attributes of thought and agency.

    There’s certainly a debate to be had here, and I think both of the approaches you mention get you some way. However, I still find it hard to see why God would create anything other than an infinity of free angels. Why create people through such a tortuous process as natural selection? Why bring into existence people with bodies that fall apart? Why is their so much suffering built into the biological world?

    • David A says

      Hm… if God has no thought, then no consciousness? If we accept there are levels of consciousness among creatures, then what is at the top – humans?

      If angels can do only ‘good’ acts, then how are they free? How can a ‘good’ act have any value if it is not a conscious decision to do the right rather than the wrong thing? A certain moral effort is required. This is why man is superior to the angels. Lovely though they are, they are in this sense just puppets. (Unless they ‘fall’ into personal responsibility and start choosing to do what God does not necessarily want.)

      The possibility of evil action, the amoral aspects of nature, the physical suffering, the bodily decay, all these ‘negative’ things you mention are precisely what gives goodness its value. If this were a ‘more lovely’ or ‘easier’ world then there would be no merit in being good.

      • On whether God is a person, yeah, it’s tricky. Some people think of God as ‘transpersonal’. Maybe persons are to God as animals are to persons. We needing think that conscious/thinking/acting things are top of the tree.

        What you say seems to imply that we are better than God, as God doesn’t have all these negative things either.

  5. John-Paul says

    The first 5 bullet points are, on the face of it, in my mind enough to conclude that you are in no real sense a christian, his holiness the pope certainly wouldn’t think so.

    You say that certain aspects of reality go “…beyond the reality which empirical science makes known to us.” Firstly, how do you know that? That claim itself is a claim not on firm ground. Also, even if it was true (which I suspect it could be) it says absolutely nothing about the truth of religion or the doctrines that said religion practise. If you don’t believe any of the christian dogma, why Christianity? And what is it you specifically have faith in for religion to be something you need to acquire?

    It is true that religion has been the main source of community building etc but this isn’t an argument that it’s true (of course you know that), it is merely an argument that it is useful, but it’s not useful either in other cases. The type of church you are attending, and when you refer to yourself as a ‘liberal christian’ simply adumbrates the fact that, in practise, religious moderation/liberalism is something very popular these days but fundamentally, I shouldn’t take your word for it when you call yourself a christian, yet don’t believe anything that I couldn’t believe as a non-believer. I think if this whole notion of religion is merely metaphorical, then I would go as far to say that you shouldn’t call it religion, organised or other. Surely Jainism would be the most useful religion, would it not?


    • Thanks John-Paul,

      There seem to be two issues here: (i) How can I justify my belief in ‘the More’? (ii) How can I call myself a ‘Christian’?

      In answer to (i) I believe that in certain aesthetic and moral experiences (clichéd example: you are deeply moved by Bach) we are aware of something of great value which goes beyond the reality empirical science makes known to us. I take those experiences to justify my belief in ‘the More’, in something like the way I take my sensory experiences to justify that there’s a laptop in front of me right now. Of course those experiences might be completely deluding me, and ‘the More’ that I seem to encounter in those experiences might not exist. But the same could be true of my sensory experiences. I could be hallucinating, or in the Matrix being systemically deceived. Why is it ok to trust my senses which seem to present to me an external world, but not okay to trust my aesthetic experiences which seem to present to me the reality of ‘the More’.

      In answer to (ii), it’s a complicated picture (more complicated than Dawkins et al appreciate). 99% of Christians don’t literally believe that Christ ‘sits at the right hand of God’ (God doesn’t have hands). I’d say a high proportion (including the Pope) don’t take Genesis literally, and many don’t take the virgin birth literally. Talk of ‘son of God’ is clearly metaphorical in some sense (God doesn’t have genitals), and spelling that out exactly is tricky. Lots of very orthodox seeming believers say that God doesn’t literally ‘know’ or ‘love’ in the way a human being ‘knows’ and ‘loves’, and it’s difficult to say how exactly that’s different from my belief in ‘the More’ which isn’t literally a person. You mention the Pope – sure, I’m not Catholic, but the Anglican Church is very broad, encompassing ultra-liberals and evangelicals. Most importantly: the church I’m in is happy with my beliefs, and many in it share them. So what’s the problem? Aren’t we getting a bit hung up with labels?

      • John-Paul says

        But isn’t it just an assumption that these experiences are something other than reality? To say that these experiences go beyond what science can make empirically known to us, presumes that you know everything science can make empirically known to us. Answers is principle is different to answers in practise. For example, what was JKF thinking the moment he got shot? There is an answer to this question and it is in principal empirical, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever achieve this answer but it would be presumptuous to say that JFK’s thoughts at that moment, in relation to everything else, went beyond reality. Also, to take aesthetic experiences as justifications for ‘the More’ seems a little bit of a leap (maybe that’s where the faith is), to feel a sense of happiness when listening to a song is a question about auditory senses and it’s connection to the brain, to question how I feel when I look at Starry Night, is to question biological vision and it’s connection the the brain, (you can see how all this leads back to the problem of consciousness.)

        Either way, if I agreed with you on that, I don’t see the connection to religion? Yes many Christians don’t believe in those things (only due to a secular/scientific enlightenment from the outside, may I add) but they do believe that Jesus literally died and rose for our sins, do you actually believe in that? Do you believe Jesus actually existed? If God doesn’t ‘love’ and ‘know’ in the way we do, then in what sense are we ‘made in his image’? And yes, your church of course will be happy with your beliefs (although I’m still confused as to what Christian beliefs you have in order to call yourself one), the more the merrier in the churches eyes, but I can’t see how your whole belief system here is not just spiritualism/humanism in disguise because religion just so happens to be the one discipline of human interaction that has had a proper go at it, the first go even.


  6. Uzi Awret says

    An ill-defined liberal Jew, the closest I get to a synagogue is hiking but I sympathize with most of what Philip says here. Until a few months ago I would have been more critical but recently working on the ‘other minds’ problem I started reading Emanuel Levinas’ ethical philosophy. I think Philip would like it, wonder what John-Paul would say.

    • Thanks Uzi, I reckon this semi-fictionalist attitude to religion is fairly common among Jews. I would like to make more Christians aware that it’s an option. I’ll check out Emanuel Levinas.

      • Uzi Awret says

        Perhaps a good place for you to start is Putnam’s (himself an observant Jew) “Levinas and Judaism”. Its a short article in the Cambridge Companion to Levinas.

  7. @Uzi: Thanks! It’s on my (very long) reading list. Will get round to it eventually..


    Great discussion! In responding, I will again distinguish your concerns about (A) the existence of ‘the More’, (B) the relationship between my beliefs and Christianity.

    (A) Good move distinguishing between what’s empirical in principle and in practice. I would say the nature of the More is in principle beyond what can be revealed by mathematical physics, as physics is only able to describe the causal structure of reality (see my last blog post).

    You say it’s ‘bit of a leap’ to trust my aesthetic experiences to tell me about reality, but you still haven’t told me what the relevant difference is between my sensory experiences and my aesthetic experiences such that the former but not the latter can justify beliefs about the nature of reality. In other words, why is it not a ‘leap’ to trust my senses? How can I rule out that I’m hallucinating or in the Matrix?

    I don’t think it’s plausible to reduce the experience of listening to Bach to just pleasurable feelings, and hence to see it as akin to a sugar high. Jeremy Bentham declared that there’s no difference between ‘pushpin and poetry’, but I think that’s implausible. We need to account for the difference between the value of eating a mars bar and the value of a profound aesthetic experience: I say that mars bars just give us pleasurable feelings whilst deep aesthetic experiences involve awareness of the More.

    (B) I’m very sympathetic to the view argued for in depth by Karen Armstrong in her book ‘The case for God’. Her claim is that ‘religious literalism’, the view that religious claims are to be taken as factual and literal, is an imposition of the enlightenment, and that prior to this they were taken as symbolic ways of hooking up to the More. The scientific revolution re-interprets religion as a series of bad scientific hypotheses, and eventually of course rejects the truth of these hypotheses.

    Two examples:
    • Pre-enlightenment theologians thought of God as ineffable, and this is inconsistent with the thesis that God is literally a person. If we can know that God thinks and loves and acts, then God is not ineffable.
    • According to Marcus Borg, the view that Jesus died for our sins was originally a metaphor by the early Christians which symbolised a rejection of the temple authority’s monopoly on the forgiveness of sins. Then sometime around 1400 it becomes the deeply strange, arguably incoherent, literalist doctrine of ‘penal substitution’: that God had to punish someone for original sin, but punished Jesus instead of us. Many, many, highly orthodox Christians reject this doctrine (including Catholics).

    So I wholeheartedly reject the kind religion Dawkins/Harris reject, but I think that’s a very limited conception of religion. My view is certainly not humanism, on account of its commitment to the reality of the More (or as I like to call it ‘God’). You could call it it non-literalist spiritualism if you like, but I think that’s the right way to do religion, and the way it was always done from around 30,000 BCE to around 1500 CE. The enlightenment was cool, and has given us so much in so many ways. But it’s messed up the way we do religion.

    • John-Paul says

      Thanks for the reply again, this is somewhat challenging I’ve only been in this game for 2 years or so, so bare with my limited cognition.

      In response to the ‘More’, you used the phrase ‘I would say..’, which brings us back down to earth a bit and when you say a certain something goes beyond what can be revealed by mathematical physics, just reminds me that this is all conceptual and does not pertain to reality at all, evidentially. I wouldn’t call this whole notion anti-scientific but it it is anti-scientific to believe that you have good evidence for such a claim. Physics by definition is the last thing you can reduce anything the universe contains to an understanding. There isn’t anything that is hypothetically irreducible to physics nor is there any evidence that this is the case. So I think you have a lot on your plate to prove when making factual claims about the universe.

      I don’t think there is a difference fundamentally in your aesthetic experiences and your sensory experiences, they are the same thing. You cannot rule out that you are not hallucinating or dreaming to phrase it in a cartesian manor, no. However, to justify the question there must be ‘a’ reality for there to be an opposing simulation/hallucination which is like reality for which contains conscious creatures who cannot tell the difference.

      I agree that sometimes we miss the point by not observing something holistically but as soon as you make claims of its function et cetera then you are essentially trying to reveal its causal structure, it naturally trespasses the territory of science overtly (i.e., to in principle be explained by physics at bottom).

      You are talking about the spiritual side of religion which many people don’t even think about in this way, and of course you have chosen Christianity, so if it is a mistake to take any of it literally, are you not secretly cherry-picking which bits you want to hook up to the ‘More’ and which bits you cannot reconcile with any deeper symbolic meaning i.e., any condoning of slavery, rape, torture, murder and so on. What is the non-literal, symbolic way to read Leviticus 18:22? If you agree that such a verse just has no relevancy to our literal morality or any deeper spiritual understanding of reality, then you are picking and choosing on your own criteria which you already have. So my point again is, why christianity? If you changed the words you have used from ‘Christianity’, ‘Jesus’ or anything relating to christianity to an Islamic perspective, you whole argument for the ‘More’ would still stand, in other words, why bother with any of it? I would argue to most people that there is no need bother with religion at all because it is not necessary for any walk of life that isn’t unachievable without, and I find it just as superfluous to your very interesting and reasonable argument about the ‘More’.

      • You seem to have a deep conviction that physics is the bottom line. What justifies that conviction? I have a deep conviction that the world can’t just consist of causal structure; it’s not ‘substantial’ enough. I’m not sure I can justify that conviction either. At some point you’ve got to take some convictions as basic, e.g. the conviction that simpler theories are better, without which we couldn’t do science, or the conviction that contradictions are impossible, without which we couldn’t do science or mathematics. One problem with Dawkins/Harris etc., is that they fail to appreciate this need for accepting basic convictions that we can’t argue for.

        All good challenges. But just to be clear: I don’t think there is an objectively correct religion. I take Islam to be just a different way of relating to the More.

        And what’s wrong with cherry picking? I tried Quakers and Unitarians, which are more overtly creedless. But I personally found them a bit minimal and unstructured. The bible is a wonderful resource for spiritual exploration, jam packed with wisdom and insight. Why not make use of it? The Old Testament isn’t all the nasty stuff. The book of Ruth, for example, is a wonderful story of feminine strength and cross racial (non-sexual) love and commitment between a Jewish woman and her non-Jewish daughter in law.

        Having said that I’m open to other religions and open to cherry picking, I think every word reported of Jesus in the gospels is wonderful, wonderful stuff, and that’s essentially the attraction to Christianity. It’s pretty clear that Jesus wanted to move beyond fiddly bits of law, e.g. Leviticus, to an emphasis on motive and purity of intention. He broke old testament rules concerning “unclean” foods, declaring that it’s what comes out of you that is unclean, not what goes into you. I draw from this that it’s your motive that makes a sexual act ethical or unethical.

        Again, really good discussion, and look forward to having you with us in Liverpool!

  8. John-Paul says

    I have that conviction based on the fact that you cannot arrive to conciousness (humans thoughts, experiences, feelings) without a brain, brians without biology, biology without chemistry and chemistry without physics. Could you adumbrate what you mean when you say it is not ‘substantial’ enough? And although that might be your conviction, what you call my conviction – that physics is the bottom line – I wouldn’t call a conviction, I see it as a reasonable, logical conclusion based on the fact that all of the sciences fall into a heirarchy in terms of what they explain and what they give rise to. The conviction that you simpler theories explain things better is not a principle of science, scientists aren’t commited to reductionism, it just means to make no mysteries where there are none (Occams Razor). Contradictions are impossible because logic dictates that there cannot be two ideas about the same thing, which are in description and explanation fully opposite to each other, which both pertain to reality and are both true, and it only takes the truth of determinism to assert this confidently. We can argue for these convictions because they are the product of our conciousness trying to make sense of the world, and like I said, if its either a general day-to-day experience or a thought about how the universe is structured, it still wouldn’t occur without the biology of the brain, and therefore chemistry and physics.

    Cherry picking isn’t good because it is intellectualy dishonest, I find… because it appears to me that if you accept it for one you must accept it for them all. Another reason to cherry pick bits which concern morality is because soon as you do cherry pick you automatically prove that you do this cherry picking on your own critera, a criteria which has its own explaination regardless of doctrine from any religion.

    Every word? What about when he told his followers to give up thrift, to follow him and to take no thought for the morrow? Vicarious redemption seems to me to be a very evil preachment, the idea that you can abolish your responsibilty because someone has taken your place on the stand. Why bother being good if you only have to repent and call upon Jesus to save you? I’ve always thought that the strongest arguments againsts gods existence and of the religions that follow are when you assume its truth and go from there. To me, christianity may be defined by this quote on a cartoon meme I came across, which is:

    Jesus knocks on a door

    Andrew: What do you want?
    Jesus: To save you.
    Andrew: Save me from what?
    Jesus: Save you from what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in.

    • Hahaha, I like the poem.

      I challenge you to find the vicarious redemption stuff in what Christ is reported to have said. ‘Live in the moment, and stop worrying about the future’. Sounds like good advice to me. Of course you have to take it in spirit, rather than taking it as a black and white command not to feed your family. But Jesus is all about rejecting rigid laws and pointless traditions in favour of the spirit behind the laws. I don’t think he would have liked tax avoidance.

      On cherry picking: depends whether you’re looking for someone to tell you what’s right and wrong, or whether you’re looking for an institution that binds the community together and nurtures its spiritual development. That’s what my church is all about. We don’t really care what people believe, and people have all sorts of different understandings of what the spiritual reality we’re trying to connect to is.

      You seemed to be worried that what we’re doing is not similar enough to what goes on in other churches. As I say, I think we’re harking back to how religion used to be before the scientific revolution made it all about literal belief. But suppose I’m wrong about that, and we’re changing what religion is all about. So what? That’s what progress is all about isn’t it? I think the world is improved by institutions that bind the community together and nurture it spiritually. That’s why I go to church on Sunday.

      • John-Paul says

        Well I mentioned the point of vicarious redemption because the ultimate teaching of Christ was that he was here to take away the sins of humanity (that you can throw your sins onto him, a scapegoat) and that you only have to repent and you will be saved. What it is, is a get out jail FREE Card where ones responsibility is abolished because someone else is taking your place on the stand, as it were. You can take someones place in prison but you cannot say that they didn’t commit that crime.

        You say, “you have to take it in spirit”, well of course yes but when did anyone ever admit to themselves in our long line of history that they must stop taking certain bits literal and take them spiritually. No one would ever take something out the bible as spiritual unless it was immoral to do otherwise, these days. As Sam Harris says, “Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance.” Suffice it to say, as time goes on and science advances, less people take it literally and more people take it symbolically. Does that not speak volumes in and of its self?

        Are you suggesting that the majority of believers where spiritual believers before the scientific revolution, and only the minority took it literally? That seems completely at odds with historic record to me.

        Well, yes I would rather have 1 Billion Christians and Muslims worldwide look at religion the way you do, rather than the current way. But, if you do want to call this progression and ‘wholeheartedly reject the religion Dawkins/Harris reject’, then I think it’s wrong to call it religion. If this is progress i.e., religion evolving, then by principle and analogy you should call Humans ‘single celled organisms’, that’s what we came progressed from? We abide by same biological laws, it lives and feeds to function just like we do, but we’re evolved, we’re something other than that now, so why call what you define as ‘religion’, religion? When it contains hardly any religiosity at all. You’re faith is based on the usefulness of religion, not the truth of it, so call it what you may, but don’t call it religion, let alone call it Christianity.

  9. Shauna Winram says

    Hi Philip! Firstly, I think that is a brave confession. The whole thing is so loaded. I think we are in a difficult situation, as Westerners. Most of us can’t go back to the ‘old ways’, so we stumble blindly into the future seeking new ways to somehow experience the ‘sacred’. I think our culture thought if we rid ourselves of superstition we would somehow be free. But capitalism and materialism didn’t really live up to that promise. It just lead to quite a bit of alienation. I believe that as humans we have evolved with some sort of spiritual need or instinct. Most of our long evolutionary history has seen us performing rituals that connect us to the earth and each other. We are a bit forlorn without them. But the way forward is confusing, and unfortunately it’s difficult to…. I don’t know. Just be tolerant of each other. Certainly I agree with you that there is something ‘numinous’ about life, and our experience of life. We can easily lose sight of that. These rituals can slow people down and put us more in touch with ourselves, and through ourselves with something beyond ourselves. Anyhow, enough from me. I wanted to respond to your post though. Like I said, I thought it was brave. Good luck with everything – and I look forward to checking out your book. Hope it’s going well. Shauna. (ANU panpsychism reading group 🙂

    • Hi Shauna,
      Great to hear from you! (Sorry for late reply…haven’t checked this for a while..). I think you have put very nicely a large part of what I’m trying to get at. We thought it’d be easy if we just junked the myths, but it doesn’t quite work out like that. We’re left drinking Coke and watching telly…

      • Shauna Winram says

        🙂 Good to hear from you too Philip 🙂 Take care.

  10. “I’m aware of some real non-empirical aspect of the world which is of great value, and I don’t accept that I have less reason to take that experience to be veridical than I have to take my sense experience to be veridical.”
    Philip, the first thing that comes to mind in response to this is some sort of an evolutionary debunking argument. My inclination is to think that it is difficult to make sense of the adaptive value of our awareness of this “More”, which leads to the thought that this feeling of “more” is an evolutionary byproduct (as in Boyer, P. (2003). Religious Thought and Behaviour as By-Products of Brain Function. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7(3), 119–124), which puts in question the veracity of religious experiences.
    Since you made above the connection between religious and panpsychist intuitions, it now occurred to me that one could develop an evolutionary debunking argument against the feeling that phenomenal properties are non-physical (or are something more than what physics tell us about). The idea is that it is difficult to make sense of the adaptive value of awareness of these non-physical properties, which gives us reason to suspect that the feeling of “non-physicality” is an evolutionary byproduct (my bet is: it arises out of a combination of the intuition that phenomenal concepts are transparent combined with the (erroneous) intuition that our mind is not massively modular. The latter intuition is grounded in our ToM module, or at least this is what Carruthers says).

    • Assaf,
      I think it would be great to explore these connections, both between evolutionary debunking arguments and ‘the more’, and between evolutionary debunking arguments and consciousness.

      I’m not persuaded, however, that these arguments have much force against pantheism/panpsychism. On these views the basic stuff of the universe is essentially consciousness-acquainted/More-acquainted; this is the raw material which natural selection operates on. Given this, we don’t need an evolutionary account of the ’emergence’ of awareness of consciousness/The More, as such awareness was there all along. I think a bird is non-conceptually aware of its conscious states in virtue of having those conscious states.

      • Birds is one thing, but what about electrons? Do you think that an electron is nonconceptually aware of its own qualia?

    • Hi Philip, sorry for derailing the thread, but I can’t help asking one last thing:
      How is this primitive sort of inner awareness (awareness of phenomenal properties), which electrons enjoy, related to computational/functional stories about inner awareness? It seems that if we design a computer to track and process information about properties of its inner states, it will process information about structural properties of these states, not about phenomenal ones. At the same time, the computer has, in virtue of being a physical system (and given your version of panpsychism), a sort of inner awareness of phenomenal properties. Do you (or anyone else) have a story about how these two forms of inner awareness interact or perhaps merge?

      • Hi Assaf,
        I believe that genuine thought is grounded in consciousness, and is distinct computational/functional ‘awareness’. So even given panpsychism, I don’t think computers necessarily have genuine awareness of phenomenal properties.

  11. Carlos Sanchez Garcia says

    What do you think about panentheism?
    David Ray Griffin and Philip Clayton are two defenders of this view

    • Yes, very sympathetic indeed.

      I see no reason not to identify ‘the more’ with the deep nature of the universe. Indeed, I have an idea that pantheism rather than panentheism might be an option, given how ‘thin’ the description of the universe we get from physics is (see my other post ‘Can physics tell us everything there is to know about the universe’).

      Plus I’m sympathetic for entirely different reasons to ‘priority monism’: the view that the universe is the one and only fundamental entity (I have a volume on ‘Spinoza on monism’, which deals with this as an issue in contemporary metaphysics as well as dealing with Spinoza’s views). I’m even inclined to the view that this fundamental entity is conscious, for reasons I explain in the final chapter of my book (The first 9 chapters are on my website: hope to put up the 10th and early in the new year).

      Marcus Borg, who I mention in the post, is a panentheist. Thanks for those two recommendations!

  12. Pingback: Goff responds to my critique of “religious fictionalism” « Why Evolution Is True

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