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Modernity and metaphysics.


THE WORKADAY ILLUSION that the human world and one’s immediate concerns in it exist independently of Nature is virtually unavoidable. One can’t be very well be thinking simultaneously about how to acquire dinner, and the significance of one’s digestive system in the cosmic scheme of things.

cerisimilitude-slug B150That said, the extinction or frailty of cosmic perspectives offsetting quotidian consciousness in modern Western societies– the “anti-metaphysical orthodoxy” someone has called it–is perhaps unique historically. It is nearly impossible to imagine anyone in our part of the world today expressing the unbridled enthusiasm for the Creation in this effusion of Emanuel Swedenborg’s from The Soul, or Rational Psychology (1749): “All things are full of Deity, and we admire in each and every thing the order which is attributed to Nature and its perpetual preservation, not by itself, which would be absurd, but by some higher Being from whom it has subsistence. We see blended together a multitude of phenomena going to prove a regulating Providence.”

The modern cogito becomes, ‘What must I be, I who think and who am my thought, in order to be what I do not think, in order for my thought to be what I am not?’

Compare, for example, Michel Foucault’s angst-filled description in The Order of Things of the “strange empirico-transcendental doublet” in modern knowledge: The mind cannot pretend to grasp “the order which is attributed to Nature” by a “higher Being.” The mind, vis-à-vis its objects, can only “inhabit, as though by a mute occupation, something that eludes it.” Paradoxically, “the not-known perpetually summons thought toward self-knowledge.” The modern cogito, more torturous than Descartes’, becomes, “What must I be, I who think and who am my thought, in order to be what I do not think, in order for my thought to be what I am not?” Things “turn in on themselves.” They have their own “internal space,” their “hidden veins.”

I LEFT COLLEGE in the 1960s a “secular humanist” convinced, in the words of American philosopher Josiah Royce (an enthusiasm of mine back then), that “human knowledge is an island in the vast ocean of mystery, and that numberless questions which it deeply concerns humanity to answer will never be answered so long as we are in our present limited state, bound to one planet, and left for our experience to our senses, our emotions, and our moral activities.”

Ideas that were in the air—a jumble in retrospect—fed my “secular humanism”: Freud’s 1927 The Future of An Illusion that represented religion as a collection of “illusions…insusceptible of proof”; Wallace Stevens’ remark in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction that what “sends us back to the quick of this invention”—a Cosmic Mind—is the “celestial ennui of apartments”; Kenneth Rexroth’s comment in a mid-century essay on Martin Buber that the sources of the Old Testament God were “metaphysical greed” and “ontological confabulation.” (The universe “is not orderly in the same way as the mind of man. Only as a concept is Nature a unity.”) Etc.

KantBut my “secular humanism” had less to do, I think, with any specific author or ideas, than with my admiration for a teacher who was a Kantian. Kant had written in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783) that people who wax metaphysical are just projecting categories of human understanding useful in experience onto metaphysical reality which they cannot experience. Attacking Swedenborg in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Illustrated by the Dreams of Metaphysics (1766) Kant scoffed at speculations concerning “hidden properties of things”—telos, final cause. Philosophy must dispense with “this phantom of knowledge.”

Ethical concerns had ostensibly rescued God and the Creation for Kant (he wrote in The Critique of Practical Reason of having to destroy knowledge to save faith) and it may never have occurred to him that confining knowledge to the ding fur uns might obscure the primitive awareness that knowledge exists in a world. This had occurred, however, to his German contemporary, philosopher and man of letters Friedrich Jacobi, who saw implicit in Kant’s idealism a substitution of the knowing self for God and Nature. Kant’s epistemology, by focusing attention on subjectivity, encouraged obliviousness of the Creation.

IDEAS CAN WORK their way into sensibility with strange effects. Kant’s epistemology, if it had on the one hand encouraged modesty about the scope of human intelligence, had also fostered monster egos in some of his Romantic disciples. Josiah Royce observed in The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1896) that if the world is “indeed the world as self-consciousness builds it, the true self [may be seen as] the self that men of genius, poets, constructive artists, know; hence the real world is such as to satisfy the demands of the man of genius, the artist.” In the philosophy of the young Friedrich Schlegel, “best do they comprehend truth…who have experienced the most moods. The truly philosophical attitude towards life and reality is therefore a sort of courageous fickleness.”

A corollary of regarding the human world as a “self-generated and autonomous realm of meaningful experience” (as sociologist Harvie Ferguson puts it in his Modernity and Subjectivity: Body, Soul, Spirit) is the notion of selfhood as an absolutely free choice independent of natural limits. Ergo, to accord the body with a choice of “sexual orientation,” its surgical modification is not out of the question; death appears to be an anomaly rather than an inevitability, and we erect memorials to those who die “tragically,” e.g. in the 9/11 disaster; the cooling of male sexual desire with age rather than being a virtual inevitability written into physiology becomes a misfortune remediable with pharmaceutical assistance.

“Ought we not remind ourselves, we who believe ourselves bound to a finitude that belongs only to us, and which opens up the truth of the world to us by means of our cognition,” Foucault writes, “ought we not to remind ourselves that we are bound to the back of a tiger?” Foucault is talking about formal thought here, but his remark has a wider applicability in modern culture.

THE SCIENCES HAVE obviously made heavy contributions to the modern “anti-metaphysical orthodoxy.” But scientists in the seventeenth century had commonly regarded the laws of Nature they were demonstrating as better explanations of how the Divine Mind operated in the world than the old Aristotelian metaphysics. For Baruch Spinoza, in the “Preface” to the Tractatus Theologica-Politicus, the place to seek the divine was not in miraculous interruptions of natural order, but its regularities. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a particularly interesting late example of this mentality, and I will dwell on it for a moment.

Swedenborg.Swedenborg is remembered most commonly as the spiritualist he became later in life, but he was a polymath who had earlier studied mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and anatomy—always with an eye to their metaphysical implications. In the Economy of the Animal Kingdom he speaks of his ambition “by continued abstractions and elevations of thought,” to proceed “from the posterior to the prior sphere; or from the world of effects, which is the visible, to the world of causes and principles, which is the invisible.” Everywhere in the universe he saw resemblance and continuity, a “mutual adaptation of inner and outer, higher and lower, grosser and more subtle spheres or bodies” and “a reception, communication, and transference of motions and affections from one to the other,” as Frank Sewell writes in the preface to his nineteenth century translation of Swedenborg’s The Soul, or Rational Psychology. For Swedenborg, influence of every kind radiated continuously from the Divine Mind to the “inmost and most interior heavens” populated by various ranks of angels, then to the realms of lower spirits, and finally to the material world. Therefore, whatever existed, whatever happened, had an ultimate divine source. Swedenborg’s doctrine of “correspondences” expressed this monism. “You would swear,” he remarks in Animal Kingdom,” that the physical world is merely symbolic of the spiritual world, and so much so that if you express in physical terms…any natural truth whatever, and merely convert those terms into the corresponding spiritual terms then…will come forth a spiritual truth or a theological dogma.”

Correspondence-hunting of another kind abounds in Arcana Caelestia, his multi-volume work of Biblical exegesis. Nothing, in Genesis was to be taken literally, he wrote, but “the smallest particulars down to the least iota, signify and enfold within them spiritual and heavenly things.” Believing with Origen that literal readings of Biblical images and stories were pointless, and that interpretations should express the spiritual insights of the interpreter, he informs his reader what these “spiritual and heavenly things” were.

A guide to Swedenborgian correspondences, many Biblical, went through several editions in the nineteenth century: The apple tree corresponds to the joy derived from spirituality; apes, to those who pervert understanding of the Holy Word—i.e. fundamentalists; bread, to spiritual sustenance; fierce animals to the passions; a candlestick to intelligence; linen breeches to conjugal love (?). One of his correspondences echoing various passages in Scripture analogizes God’s radiant influence throughout Creation with the sun’s influence on Earth. (The poet William Blake, who was influenced by Swedenborg, wrote in A Vision of the Last Judgment,” “When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’” Whether Blake actually saw bands of angels as the sun rose or not, the image expresses the faith-based experience of the sun as opposed to the gold-coin sun of realism.)

Swedenborg thought that the “Book of Nature” could be read in the same way as the Bible, the one as rich in “correspondences” as the other. Whatever correspondence-seeking owed to what he had seen firsthand in his work in the sciences, it was more evidently a play of the imagination which would have served to sustain an awareness of first and last things amid the distractions and fragmentariness of experience.

SWEDENBORGIAN THEOSOPHY WAS an example of the type of thinking, or imagining, which had originated in the in the Middle Ages known as ‘natural theology.’ Its fundamental premise, as described by Michel de Montaigne in Apology for Raimond de Sebonde, was that there is “not any part or member of the world that disclaims or derogates from its Maker.” In Swedenborg’s eighteenth century, scientists and learned people tended to be impatient with this kind of thing. Swedenborg observed that in the “physics, chemistry, mechanics, geometry, anatomy, psychology, philosophy, the history of nations, and the realm of literature, criticism, and language study” of his time, Nature was being treated simply a given, a source of raw material for the human mind to work up. He could see–and did not like–the consequences of this outlook for both intellect and sensibility. In The Spiritual Diary (composed mostly during 1747-8 when he was about sixty) one reads,

Whatever is taught by the sciences concerning the natural causes of phenomena—such as those things that are in the human body, concerning the senses and similar things, also whatever is deduced concerning a knowledge of the soul and the like, is full of false hypotheses in which not a single verity is laid open to the sight [because] thoughts are not allowed to extend beyond grossest Nature; therefore spiritual and celestial things are considered as nothing.”1

When Swedenborg’s “spirit-seeing” began later in life, he encountered angels shocked to learn from him of humans who did “not yet know that the life of man is never man’s, but that all life is infused by God-Messiah. Indeed the…fallacies are so great that men can scarcely suppose otherwise than that the eye sees of itself, and that the interior mind sensates of itself, and that man’s understanding understands of itself.” A person working in modern knowledge embraced the delusion that “everything is his own, and that he both thinks and acts from himself.” Foucault’s tiger to whose back we are bound had become the caged pussy cat on our compact little island of human intelligibility. (One thinks of the fictional old astronomer in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas who, after spending most of his life studying the heavens, had concluded he was personally in charge of the weather and the equinoxes: “The sun has listened to my dictates, and passed from tropic to tropic at my direction.” As death approached, he worried over what might become of the world when he was no longer around to oversee its operations.)

In trance states induced by restraint of breathing Swedenborg claimed that his spiritual double paid out-of-body visits to the spirit world.

In trance states induced by restraint of breathing Swedenborg claimed that his spiritual double paid out-of-body visits to the spirit world. There, he had learned firsthand that the spiritual body of a person after death was simply a duplicate of his or her physical person. Basically nothing had changed. During one of these excursions Swedenborg encountered a recently deceased acquaintance of his, a fellow “quite learned in earthly things” who had never believed in life after death. Now that he was dead, nothing in him having changed, he thought he was still alive, a post-mortem confusion is not too unusual, judging from Hans Holzer’s twentieth century books on haunting ghosts. Medium Sybil Leek was working with Holzer when she made contact with a female spirit who wanted to know where her body was. Leek told her she really had no further use for a body and should get on with her life in the hereafter. “No, I want my body,” the spirit replied. “Where is it?”

The publication in 2013 of a weighty six-hundred page collection of academic essays misnamed the Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology—hand-held its weight strains the wrists—testifies to a recent revival of interest in natural theology among scholars of religion. This revival scarcely qualifies as an intellectual revolution, though, and it will be a rhetorical convenience in what follows to refer to natural theology in the past tense. Though sometimes represented as independent of revelation, it presupposed Creator and Creation. Natural theologians studied what could be known of the Divine Mind by reading the “Book of Nature” as opposed to Scripture. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which fused Christian theology with Aristotle, was the medieval masterwork in the genre.

A natural theologian might consider the various traditional formal arguments for the existence of God, e.g., the “cosmological argument” concerning the origins of the universe. The “argument from design” contemplated harmonious relationships of parts to wholes in ecosystems, and the orchestration of natural phenomena to serve creaturely needs: “The earth itself exists that it may be inhabited by animate beings, the mineral kingdom that it may produce the vegetable, the vegetable that it may nourish the animal, the lower species of animals that they may serve the higher,” Swedenborg wrote in The Soul, or Rational Psychology.

PaleyWILLIAM PALEY, IN his 1802 Natural Theology, a university text in England during the first half of the nineteenth century, observes that “the proboscis with which the bee is furnished determines him to seek for honey; but what would that signify if flowers supplied none?” He speaks of the “variety of mountain and valley, forest and fertile plain, promontory and shallow estuary” so “well-suited to [humanity’s] capacities and enterprise,” and dwells at length on the intricate design of the eye, and its modifications in creatures suitable in their various environments. “The operation of causes without design may produce a wen, a wart, a mole, a pimple, but never an eye.”

The anonymous author of Arguments Natural, Moral and Religious for the Immortality of the Soul (1805) remarks that since every natural desire has an appropriate gratification, the universal desire for life after death must have one, too. “Never before the present age of reason and philosophy” had it been supposed that the desire for life after death was “implanted in the breast to delude and disappoint.”

Coupled with observation, such teleological play of the imagination, though démodé, is not difficult to kindle. Only ponder the humble yet elegant banana, attractively packaged and preserved in its yellow skin which Nature provides in sizes convenient for single servings; or apple seeds that, rather than being distributed irritatingly throughout the fruit reside at the inedible core like a message of hope; or the protective shells of nuts, inviolate to moisture for some time when buried, guaranteeing squirrels of a food source through the winter.

IN NATURAL THEOLOGICAL musings, the purposive workings of the Divine Mind are likened to those of the human mind. The character Philo in David Hume’s eighteenth century “Dialogue on Natural Religion” complains about this, since human ideas “reach no further than our experience,” and “we have no experience of divine attributes and operations.” Philo grants that the universe probably did arise “from something like design,” but to say more than that on the subject would require “the utmost license of fancy.” But Neo-Thomist Etienne Gilson asks in God and Philosophy (1941) why we should assume that a projection of our own designing, purposive mentality onto Nature is erroneous since our mentality is itself in Nature. Why suppose that it exists to mislead understanding rather than guide it?

WhiteheadFor anyone not predisposed to skepticism there is a good deal in Nature to suggest design. Alfred North Whitehead in Modes of Thought (1938) notes, as Plato and Aristotle had, the “large-scale preservation of identities amid minor changes”—people, squirrels, seeds, bananas, apple trees, stones. Swedenborg in The Soul, or Rational Psychology remarked that that there “is no entity and no substance in the universe without form; that it is anything, and that it is such as it is, is owing wholly to form.” The existence and perpetuation of distinct forms, and the relations among them, suggests intelligent design.

Kant and Darwin had both observed that when one studies the relationships of parts to wholes in living beings, one inevitably thinks in terms of design and purpose. As far as they were concerned that was just the way the human mind works, not a revelation of metaphysical reality. Darwin, though, had his metaphysical moments. The Duke of Argyll once remarked to him that he found it impossible to contemplate certain “wonderful contrivances for certain purposes in Nature” without envisioning them as expressions of Mind. Darwin responded with a haunted look before saying, “Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force, but at other times”—he shook his head vaguely—“it goes away.”

Supposing that Nature evinces the workings of a cosmic Mind does no doubt tend, as Hume said, to “license” imagination. One thinks 0f those sermons in which pastors descry the hand of the Almighty at work in some local event—or people given to whimsical reflections on bananas and apple seeds. Even in the Middle Ages, natural theology wasn’t every thinker’s cup of tea, and later Scripture-based religion could do without it. A commonplace of twentieth century religious historiography was that Reformation theologians had washed their hands of natural theology, although Michael Sudduth challenges this notion with a flurry of quotations from reformers’ writings in The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (2009). In the twentieth century Karl Barth voiced a heartfelt “Nein!” to natural theology’s investing God with all-too-human feelings and longings.

Philip Clayton, a professor theology at Claremont School of Theology, describes in one of the Oxford Handbook essays (“Scientific Critiques of Natural Theology”) a symposium convened at Cal Tech to explore the question, “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” Attendees were mainly scientists of agnostic or atheist persuasion. When Clayton and other speakers presented “nuanced” natural theological arguments representing religious claims as plausible, or compatible with science, audience boredom was palpable. Only those speakers who focused on how current scientific research might suggest the operation of Mind in Nature sparked interest.

There is really no way to get from science to natural theology—or metaphysics of any kind—without taking seriously questions scientists, qua scientists, have no occasion to ask, and for which there are no empirical answers.’

BUT THERE IS really no way to get from science to natural theology—or to metaphysics of any kind—without taking seriously questions scientists, qua scientists, have no occasion to ask, and for which there are no empirical answers. Clayton describes many of the currently fashionable arguments against theism advanced by scientist-atheists like Richard Dawkins as “disappointing, even embarrassing, to those who know anything of the philosophical literature.” Alternatives to the idea of cosmic design popular among scientists have been principles like “blind force,” “chance,” and “sudden variation.” Gilson saw these as revealing only a preference for “a complete absence of intelligibility to. . .nonscientific intelligibility”—and what might seem unintelligible if only scientific explanations are allowed will not necessarily seem that way otherwise. But if one clings to the idea that only scientific explanations are acceptable, even the hypothesis of an aboriginal “Big Bang”—for which there is a scientific basis, and which the Catholic Church has assimilated to the dogma of Creation—may not seem a particularly solemn or mysterious event. The flippancy of the term “Big Bang” suggests accident rather than design, maybe even a practical joke. When Sky and Telescope magazine asked its readers in 1978 to propose other names for the hypothesized universe-generating explosion, among the entries was, “What Happens If I Press This Button?”

In The Mysterious Universe (a popular book of the 1930s), Sir James Jeans mentions the speculation first advanced in the eighteenth century that the solar system originated when a wandering star approached the sun closely enough to raise a great tidal wave on its surface. Fragments of the sun that split away cooled to form planets. What bothered Gilson was what Jeans, after describing this speculation, went on to say: unlikely as it might seem that life would have emerged on planet Earth, “into such a universe we have stumbled, if not exactly by mistake, at least as the result of what may properly be described as an accident.” This was “the surprising manner in which, so far as science can at present inform us, we came into being.”

That would certainly be surprising, Gilson agreed, but Jeans’ remark seemed an egregious example of the scientific preference for “a complete absence of intelligibility to…nonscientific intelligibility,” and as a speculation about how life forms emerged on earth less plausible, a priori, than supposing the operation of Mind.

GilsonGilson criticized also evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley’s philosophically naïve treatment of Darwin’s empirically-derived conception of the “struggle for existence” as if it were a metaphysical principle. Evolution certainly does involve what can be characterized as struggle, but Huxley had given the Struggle for Existence the status of a Greek god. As such, it was a close cousin to those other scientific divinities, Chance and Sudden Variation. The trouble with all such deities for the monotheist Gilson was their limited reach. How was it that the species embroiled in the “struggle for existence” came to exist, struggle, and evolve in the first place? What would seem to have a greater claim to legitimacy as a metaphysical principle than the Struggle for Existence is a conatus in Nature to preserve and perpetuate species, whatever may be required, including struggle and metamorphosis. The eighteenth century taxonomist Linnaeus had said something of the sort when he represented the “war of all against all” in biological life as the means by which God maintained balance in Nature—an overview of the situation not only more mysterious and awe-inspiring than Huxley’s Struggle for Existence, but more plausible, because more inclusive.

THE QUESTION MAY be asked, also, whether restricting the concept of evolution to the empirical investigation of biological species on earth is to underestimate its scope. Some years ago a friend sent me an old book he’d come across somewhere in a used bookstore, with a note: “This is very strange.” The book, published in 1884, was Esoteric Buddhism by A.P. Sinnett. It is very strange, and repeated readings have not made it seem less so.

Sinnett had been managing editor of a prominent English newspaper in India when he became acquainted with Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society. She and the American co-founder of the Society, Henry Steele Olcott, had gone to India from New York intent on organizing Indian branches. Earlier, Blavatsky had studied for a time with Tibetan Buddhist monks living high up in the Himalayas, and her ties with them had continued. Through her mediation, Sinnett entered into a correspondence with a Buddhist adept, Koot Hoomi, who agreed to impart to him the outlines of “esoteric Buddhism’s” understanding of the cosmos, with the proviso that only persons who had undergone the strenuous initiatory discipline of the Mahatmas would be capable of appreciating its verity.

Darwinian evolution, Koot Hoomi explained, was “simply an independent discovery of a portion—unhappily but a small portion” of a metaphysical principle operative not only on earth but throughout a chain of seven worlds of which Earth was a member. In this chain, Earth, Mars and Mercury were perceptible to humans. Other worlds in the chain were of a materiality too subtle for people to observe—at least most people!—and evolution was a principle at work in all of the worlds not only in animate, vegetable, and mineral life, but in humans during multiple reincarnations in various of these worlds. Across millions of years, each of the seven worlds had evolved to the point of being able to sustain life forms, before losing the capacity to do so, then regaining it once more, evolving in the process as did life forms as they moved around and around the chain.

James Gallant is an independent scholar, the Fortnightly‘s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and the author of The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta and Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil? (forthcoming from Vagabondage). He has also written a collection of stories about historical classical guitarists, including Francesco Roberto, published in The Fortnightly Review.

  1. from note 249 in the Diary, p. 62 in the London Swedenborg Society’s publication of the work.

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