Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pandeism and Transdeism

Another innovation in deistic thought, formally of quite recent vintage, is Transdeism (abbreviated from Transcendent Deism or Transcendental Deism, and variously titled TransDeism or Trans-Deism). This evolution may be added to the steadily growing family of refinements of deistic thought which has already included Monodeism, Pandeism, Panendeism, and even Polydeism. And what is Transdeism? To what doctrine does the Transdeist hold? To a degree it depends who do you ask, and how do you ask, as some different figures in modern theological parlance have developed differing approaches to explaining a transdeistic model. Larry Copling, an innovator of Panendeism (the concept that our Universe is but one part of a greater, encompassing but non-interacting God), contended that "PanenDeism is the 'science' and TransDeism is the 'technology' (applied science)." Philosopher-mystic Nick Dutch authored TransDeism and Divination, wherein he placed that the doctrine of Transdeism as.... well, none, really, and that's much the point of it. Transdeism in practice is rather a rejection of the whole idea of "doctrine" and all it implies, holding simply to but one certainty, that there is a rational spiritual truth which is out there, one not involving theistic revelation or deity-intervention, probably unknowable in its entirety to any individual in their lifetime, and yet surely worthy of man's investigation.

And so, the Transdeist and Pandeist paths begin in a very similar place, with the search for this spiritual truth founded in concepts or logic and reason, a premise which rejects brute and inconsistent revelation as necessarily explanatory of anything. But from there Transdeism and Pandeism diverge; where the pandeistic model proposes to discern the set of most probable metaphysical explanations, the Transdeist replies, "not so fast, for there are all of these spiritual traditions out there, and experiences to be had and learned from in every one." Meditation, divination, reading of palms and tarot cards, wrapping of rosary beads, pilgrimaging to Mecca or Machu Piccu or the Blarney Stone, all may offer an experience through which someone may learn a spiritual truth of our Universe. Even those religious or spiritual traditions which mislead provide some value in sharing the experience of the 'how' of their misleading ways. And so the Transdeist sets out on a more experientialist path, knowing that there is not time enough in a lifetime to parse through every opportunity out there, and yet content that the answer lies not in the "having tried" but in the "going forth to try."

This is not to suggest that Pandeism decries experientialist methodology; but simply that Pandeism places its highest valuation on logically-derived conclusions of probability, and makes a calculated discounting of spiritual experiences based on the known manipulability and tendency toward error inherent in so ungovernable a thing as the human mind. The question the Pandeist asks, in contradistinction, may be refined to this: are personal experiences proof of anything? Pandeism places its premium on sifting those things which pure logic shows to fall within one of the six logical states, necessary or unnecessary, probable or improbable, possible or impossible. To the Transdeist, the experience of the mystical or the inexplicable is evidence that something mystical or inexplicable exists to be explored, and the focus turns to that exploration. To the Pandeist, the same experience simply shows that such an explanation is possible, and that an accounting for it is necessary, whether that accounting be through mundane explanations such as the purely psychological; or through the explanation of the standard pandeistic model (wherein our Creator has wholly become the Creation, and the mind of man uncomprehendingly might experience the unconscious mind of the Creator underlying all things).

Although Transdeism has only been coined as a term of philosophical discourse in the past few decades (as opposed to Pandeism, coined for this purpose in 1787 and since used regularly, if sporadically), it is a much older idea to propose that following mystical or spiritual paths may yield spiritual truths not involving an intervening deity. But just as Pandeism rejects the panentheistic -en- of Panendeism as unnecessary to account for what is observed (for our Universe may be the result of a Creator's becoming without need of any part of our Creator continuing to exist as distinct from the post-Creation Universe), so does Pandeism reject the proposition that any more meaning may necessarily be derived from the Transdeistic search for mystical experiences than from the more mundane, non-mystical experiences of the everyday adventurer. On the other hand, the Pandeist may have other motivations to experience such things, such as the sheer joy of sharing experiences with the Creator of whom we are part, so perhaps at the end of the road, what matters most is what we have done, and not why we have done it.

Friday, July 15, 2011


I have at times lamented that while far too many songs vainly repeat the theological conditioning of their originating cultures, precious few recount any sort of freethought -- and of those, fewer still which could be deemed downright funky. True, John Lennon enabled us to "Imagine" no religion, and Rush invited us to exercise Free Will. But it was not until I entered the lyrics catalog of Stevie Wonder that I discovered the perfect freethinkers song sitting there all along under my nose -- and it is a funkalicious song, and it has an awesome message.

The inspiration:

It all began in 1972, with the then-22 year old musician seeking to step out of the shadow of Ray Charles, whom he had been cast by the music industry as a younger version of, partly for his sound and undeniable talent as both a pianist and a singer, but mostly for his coincidental blindness. In a jam session with Jeff Beck for the production of what would eventually be Stevie's starmaking album, Talking Book, Beck came out with a novel drumbeat, immediately inspiring Stevie's writing of a bass part, to be played on his "funky, dirty, stinky, nasty instrument" -- the clavinet. Other musical elements followed, the rise and fall of the trumpets trumpeting notes, sometimes stairstepping, sometimes flowing close to free jazz until all come winding together in a chaotically, beautifully layered ending.

The Execution:

Here is an original studio-recording version:

And here's a later, faster version:

The song launches itself with what has become one of the most iconic bass lines known to music, a variation of a conventional run up and down the pentatonic scale made wild by the interspersing of ghost notes between the scale notes. This is shortly joined by a small but potent section of brass instruments. And then Stevie starts singing, tearing into lyrics, "Very supersititous, writing's on the wall," which give the song meaning above and beyond the greatness of the music itself. Now, Stevie could've taken this masterfully funkalicious tune and turned out a song with lyrics on most any subject, for example those most ubiquitous themes of the genre, love, sex, and just plain partying. But he instead chose superstition as the theme, excoriating by name irrational belief in such fanciful flights as bad luck from walking under a ladder ('ladder's 'bout to fall'), triskadekaphobia ('thirteen month old baby'), and breaking of mirrors ('broke the looking glass'), the last event being followed by 'seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past'.

This overall sentimentation is then most powerfully reflected in the repeated refrain:

When you believe in things
That you dont understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition aint the way
An almost primal singing scream is arced by double-tracking over the words, 'then you suffer,' almost a lamentation of suffering on its own. In the next verse, he interestingly includes 'wash your face and hands,' though not typically a superstition, certainly something done to a superstitious degree by some, especially germaphobes and the OCD-stricken. This line may be read to suggest a biblical reference as well, as does the earlier line 'the writing's on the wall. After another refrain comes something else which seems telling about the song as a whole; mixed in amongst all the other beliefs dismissed for their harmful nonsensically, in the spot where the falling ladder stood in the first verse, is the comment, 'devil's on his way'-- the inescapable implication being, the devil is simply yet another silly superstition, a falsity as with all the rest.

The Contemplation:

In an interview on the release of the album, Stevie waxed lyrical in speaking of the superstition decried in the lyrics: "The worst thing is, the more you believe in it, the more bad things happen to you. You're so afraid that something terrible is going to come up, that you are much more vulnerable."

Superstition is the funkiest song on the album, indeed the only one which aims for funkaliciousness. It took a while for the ambition of the song to sink into the music market, with the song reaching the Pop and R&B number one spots some three months after its release. And it is the only song directed toward a seemingly antireligious theme. Now, I won't pretend to have any inkling of Stevie being anything but a traditional theist. He had earlier recorded gospel numbers as well, and has had no dearth of references to theistic beliefs in later songs. And it may well be that Stevie was excluding his own beliefs from the condemned categorization, possibly even considering the superstitions addressed as counterclaims to his religion.But whether he intended or not, this song tells a good part of the story for those who have broken the bounds of theism altogether and leapt into the sea of other possibilities.

It may be that other listeners don't get this out of the song, we humans being adept at reading the validation of our own desires into the things we see and hear and feel. And, most assuredly, it is the music as a whole, rather than the message, which made this song the hit which it was and is. But even as the song contains one of the funkiest baseline/horn combos ever belted out, it unquestionably conveys one message vital to the philosophy of freethought: the irrational belief in superstitious leads to suffering of the funkiest kind.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Evolutionary biology as reflected by analogy in Hindu scripture

Efforts to narrow the rift apparent between, on the one hand, science, and on the other, religion (or, most especially, revelation-based theistic faiths) often run through the territory of creative interpretation of one discipline or the other. There are, naturally, two directions in which this prescription flows: one, the assertion that the scriptural account is literally accurate, and that science is accurate only insofar as it may be read to support the scriptural narrative; and two, the assertion that scientific accounts alone are accurate and that whatever is reported in scripture is an allegory of the scientifically discoverable occurrence, or is otherwise subject to a scientific explanation. For example, as to the first method, geographic markers usually taken to indicate slow and sporadic flooding events may be proposed by scriptural literalists as evidence of a single world-wide flood, an event remarked upon in religious traditions from many parts of the world. As to the second method, certain of those same signs might be staked as logical explanations as to why the scripture-writers believed a localized flood to be worldwide, or were given to a metaphor of such a flood (then argued to have never been intended for literal interpretation) thus preserving some measure of validity to that scripture.

Falling within the latter vein,of late, are particular series of parables in Hindu scripture which tell of Vishnu--the ultimate expression of the divine essence, the meta entity within which our whole Universe is wrapped--revealing himself to man in particular forms, known as avataras, arriving in a particular progression. Those forms, it is noted by followers, were those particularly appropriate to the situation in which he appeared (appearing, for example, as a fish to warn of the coming flood, and as a turtle to assist in salvaging what remained after the flood). But more than that, it is posited, a remarkable correlation is to be found between the mythical recounting of the progression of those forms and what is now understood by scientific examination to be the order through which evolution by natural selection has brought to pass the variety of life on Earth.

The ten incarnations accepted by most authorities on the Hindu scripture are:
. Matsya . -- which begins as a very tiny fish, but grows to be a great fish, filling the ocean
.. Kurma .. -- a tortoise
... Varaha ... -- a boar
.... Narsimha .... -- a "hybrid" half-man and half-lion
..... Vamana ...... -- a Dwarf
...... Parasurama ...... -- Rama, the hero with an axe
....... Rama ....... -- the princely hero of the Ramayana epic
........ Krishna ........ -- the divine teacher of the Gita
......... Buddha ......... -- the enlightened founder of Buddhism
.......... Kalki .......... -- which is yet to come....

We begin, then, with Matsya. Matsya comes to warn the faithful Dravidian king Manu that a flood is coming which will drown all life on Earth. When he first appears, he is the tiniest of minnows, whom Manu is able to fit in a jar; but soon Matsya outgrows the jar, and then the tub in which he is next placed, and then even the river, and finally the whole ocean. Then the fish reveals itself to be Vishnu, and instructs the king of the coming flood, and of the need to save all manner of medicinal herbs and other valuable seeds. It is noteworthy that the flood thus described is not claimed to have come from Matsya (or Vishnu), and not to be a punishment directed against man; it is simply a natural occurrence which man is being warned of. Representations of Matsya tend to depict a four-armed upper torso of a man protruding from the mouth of a great fish, but the myth makes it clear that Matsya was the fish itself. And in support of the evolutionary biological argument, it is claimed that Matsya's piscine nature represents the oceanic origin of all life on Earth.

Kurma, the huge tortoise, is the form Vishnu takes after the flood has passed, in some accounts it arrives right afterwards to assist in the rebuilding of civilization, but in most it comes in a different era to deal with a different ocean; as an amphibious animal it is capable of retrieving the gods' elixir of immortality which had been carried by the flood to the ocean's deepest reaches. Restoring it to the demigods of the day, it enables them to defeat various evil demons who had stripped them of their powers. Kurma is claimed, then, to represent the transition from fish to reptiles (though a true amphibian in between would have been a better tell of this). Not long after, the demon Hiranyaksha appears, steals the Vedas, and plunges the Earth itself to the depths of the 'cosmic ocean.' Vishnu reappears in his third avatara, Varaha, the giant Boar. After a thousand-year battle, Vahara prevails and carries the Earth up from the depths between his tusks, in order to return it to its rightful place in our Universe. The boar, then, is claimed to represent the next transition, from reptile to mammal.

Narsimha, the "half-man, half-lion," to my mind, brings forth the image of an animal with some feature which would make one think of a man, and some which would make one think of a lion: the baboon. There are many species of baboon, and amongst them, the Guinea Baboon is known in particular for the lion-like mane of the adult male. It is observed to walk at times on all fours, and other times to stand and take a few steps on its hind legs, and to manipulate things in a markedly human-like fashion with its dexterous primate hands. This is, it must be confessed, a bit of a stretch to accommodate the scriptural narrative into an evolutionary narrative, but at the same time there is no actual half-man half-lion in existence to work into it scientifically. In the myth, Vishnu appears in this 'half-man, half-lion' form to defeat Hiranyakashipu, a demon who had been granted immunity from enemies when indoors and out, when on the ground or in the sky, during the day and in the night, and from both manufactured weapons and living hands. Narimha defeated Hiranyakashipu by seizing him in a doorway (neither inside nor out), at twilight (neither day nor night), holding him on his thigh (not on the ground, nor in the sky), and disemboweling him with his lion-like nails (neither living hands, nor man-made weapons).

That last beast is the last 'beast,' all the rest of Vishnu's incarnations being recognizably human. As to Vamana, the "dwarf," this raises the image of "Lucy," the famously diminutive specimen of species Australopithecus afarensis, a short-statured link in the chain of human evolution. The remainder of the incarnations are human, though arguably representative of progressive stages of human evolution, or, alternately, of the evolution of human civilizations, if not both. Parasurama, Rama, and Krishna are most easily analogized as simply being humans advancing across different levels of civilization and enlightenment. Parasurama, notably, is 'Rama with an ax,' and is oft depicted as swarthed in a beardly beard, conceivably, then, a hairier 'primitive man' version of Rama. And though the inclusion of the Buddha amongst these incarnations is claimed by some as cynically indicating some co-option of religious symbolism by the Hindu majority, it confesses at the same time a universality of recognition of the Buddha as a force for goodness and instruction toward right conduct. But observe as well that in a smaller number of traditions, a brother of Krishna named Balarama, described as well as an enlightened teacher, is included in place of Buddha; this view is most often criticized from the view that Krishna and Balarama lived at the same time, while all other avatara live in distinct and nonoverlapping eras.

And at last there is Kalki, riding a white horse, bringing with him the immolation of our Universe entire, in a blinding white light -- stepping out of the evolutionary fold, this is claimed by some to presage the physics dictating the end of our Universe itself, either by a Big Crunch (possibly leading to a new cycle), or heat death, or some comparably cataclysmic coming.

And through all this it must be remembered that there are precious few 'fundamentalist' or 'literalist' Hindus, who would claim all the tales told above to be literal truths instead of symbolic depictions, making it more palatable to assume that stages of evolution by natural selection were indeed being showcases here. Indeed, some nineteenth century Hindu thinkers thought Charles Darwin had himself taken an unacknowledged cue from Hinduism, an error fueled by J. B. S. Haldane, an English scientist of the same field, who connected the ideas after the fact. But that claim would have been inestimably strengthened by more and more explicitly intermediary incarnations invoking animals which would fill fossil record gaps. Perhaps if Vishnu had earlier appeared as a great crustacean? Or an improbably large bacterium? But still, were one looking for a revelational theistic faith whose scripture was most immediately analogisable to the scientific evidence available, the evolutionary progression of the avatara of Vishu offers as qualified a candidate as any.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Legacy of Antony Flew

The death of Antony Flew in April of 2010 set off a firestorm of debate over his legacy and who, in the end, he was, philosophically. Biographically, there's no question that he was a mid-1920s London-born son of a Methodist minister who began to drift from Christianity as a teenager -- he was at one point, while a student at Oxford, in a Christian group led by noted apologist C. S. Lewis, but though he thought Lewis to be the most effective apologist, he ultimately found the position as a whole unconvincing.

And so Flew grew to be a leading philosopher of the school of evidentialism, endlessly strictly demanding that belief ought to follow the evidence, and ruthlessly weeding out claims of faith which were not founded on insurmountable logic (which, for the most part, discounted all forms of faith for him). Flew's primary position was that atheism ought to be presupposed until testable, empirical evidence of a God (or comparable metaphysical entity) should arise -- he rejected out of hand the notion of any God which could or would make itself untestable, characterizing such propositions as simply meaningless. Likely his most famous contribution to philosophical dialogue was the no true Scotsman fallacy, a proposition that focused some light on the problem of dissenting voices within a group being characterised by their opponents as simply not being members of the group.

But late in life, Flew's discernment of where the evidence led caused him to undertake a rejection of atheism itself, in favor of the position of Deism. An elderly Flew wrote -- with the assistance of another philosopher, Roy Abraham Varghese -- a book confrontationally titled There Is A God. The clincher for Flew was the plethora of fortuitous circumstances in our Universe, from constants of physics to the peculiar dual dance of DNA and RNA which Flew saw as a form of code requiring, at least obliquely, a code-writer. Flew's death not long after caused 'followers' in three camps to advocate for specific aspects of his work.

Atheists who had long rallied behind Flew's actively and eloquently antitheistic writings insisted that Flew's late-life conversion had been brought about by confusion and deception as to what science could answer about the origin of life; it was hinted without subtlety that senility had played a role (and, indeed, this argument was made even while Flew still lived). Some proposed that Flew had experienced something of a death-bed conversion brought about by fear of afterlife consequences, a proposition Flew flatly scotched with the assurance that despite coming to believe in a designer, he continued steadfastly rejecting the notion of an afterlife. But most of all, the atheists sought to dismiss Flew's late-life deistic turn as an anomalous period in the life of a tried-and-true atheist whose great bulk of work was uncompromisingly atheistic. The work, they contended, spoke for itself, and itself overpowered the arguments upon which Flew later came to rest.

Theists, on the opposite tack, sought to extend Flew's views into territory which Flew himself expressly continued rejecting, begging the possibility that Flew's ascent to Deism placed him on the path to accepting some brand of Theism, much as a man who walks up from a valley to the top of a mountain before dying might afterwards be described as having been on a path to walk right on up to the moon. To read obituaries produced by some theistic publications would be to conclude that Flew had indeed approached becoming a deity-worshiping believer in literal theistic scripture, replete with an angry, jealous, haphazardly intervening Creator, and stone-age creation myth. Such representations optimistically ignored that Flew's views had actually become even more hardened against theistic contentions as he entered into the realm of deistic thought. To Flew, the very possibility of a noninterfering deistic God rendered unnecessary and absurd the claims of the bother of a theistic tinkerer-deity. In 2006 an evangelical university had given Flew an award for his freedom of thought (presumably for shifting from atheism to Deism), though Flew himself had not wavered from what he'd announced in a 2004 interview:

I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins.

Flew, rather, compared his Deism to the position of Thomas Jefferson, declaring:

While reason, mainly in the form of arguments to design, assures us that there is a God, there is no room either for any supernatural revelation of that God or for any transactions between that God and individual human beings.

And, at last, there were the deists (including pandeists), the small but enduring group of adherents to the position to which Flew ultimately did hew, declaring himself to be "quite happy to believe in an inoffensive inactive god." As followers of precisely this view, they defended Flew's final writings on the contention that these ought to be taken for the value of what they set forth, without consideration of the author's life external to his work. The deist, then, was tasked with combating barbs hurled both from the side of the atheists who dismissed Flew's post-atheistic writings on the grounds of deceived and diminished faculties; and from the theists who misrepresented Flew's end-of-life philosophical evolution as endorsing their view. In a sense, deists were tasked still with countering Flew himself, for though his potent antitheistic arguments were most squarely directed against theistic beliefs, elements of them could be read as antideistic and antipandeistic as well. There are indeed legitimate questions raised as to whether Flew did truly fully grasp the science of genetics which played a large part in his late conversion, and indeed it is hardly an article of faith amongst deists that the code of life requires a direct author at all, if a Universe might be designed which authors such things incidentally. But further back from that, the notion of authorship may not be withdrawn, for Deism fathoms the ability of a Universe itself to give rise to such a complex code as evidence of a complex design.

But whatever else may come from the late-life conversion of Antony Flew, it surely succeeded in drawing new attention both to his antitheistic life's work, and to the deistic ideas which were his final ideological resting place.