Pantheism is one of the oldest belief systems there is which purports to offer an overall view about the nature of the universe. It is a metaphysical scheme that is robust to criticism more than most and a worldview which is often supported by intellectuals and scientists. How we define pantheism can allow for a very broad range of beliefs under the pantheism umbrella; it allows for a material interpretation as well as spiritual interpretations and dualist accounts. Before investigating the precise nature of pantheism, we should first offer an account of how to define pantheism.
When we define pantheism we have a long history of belief to work from. We also have many different varieties that we can use as a resource. Pantheist groups have existed within all the major religions, independently from organised religion and sometimes even atheist groups have claimed to hold a pantheist system of how to understand the universe. So how can we define pantheism to accommodate such a wide range of beliefs?
The Most Interesting Worldview
Pantheism, in its most simple expression, is the belief that God and the universe is the same thing. For most people the implications of such a statement are not immediately obvious, the common response is often a “so what.” Richard Dawkins accuses pantheism of being no more than sexed up atheism, which is a very simplistic philosophical view whilst Einstein, Carl Sagan, Kurt Godel amongst others were often heard to be speaking of God with the implication that it was the Pantheist God to which they were referring.
So how can we tease out the important characteristics of the position when we define pantheism as God and the universe being the same thing? The fundamental points at issue are based around questions of necessity and of mental phenomena. Spinoza was the one who placed these points into the most acute and rational scheme. He argued from first principles concerning the nature of existence and what must be the case.
The first principle that Spinoza grappled with was that ultimately there could only be one kind of ‘thing’ that existed. All other ‘things’ were created or caused by this primary source and so could be considered to be attributes of the one true existing thing. Now this makes perfect logical sense, because if there were two things that existed, then they would have to exist independently of each other and could not interact. If they could interact then they would share characteristics and therefore would be of the same type. The principle also fits in with the idea that all events or all entities that exist have a cause. Though there has to be one thing that does not have an external cause but instead is the cause of itself.
Something From Nothing? Then Something Must be self-Caused!
This principle is not lost on theists or on atheists. Theists claim that God is the one truly self caused entity and that He then created or caused the universe. Atheists on the other hand miss out the God step and claim that it is the universe itself which is self caused and that all things that exist are a consequence of the natural existence of the universe. The pantheist amalgamates the two together and says that God and the universe is the same thing. That is a strong disagreement with theism because the pantheist disputes the claim that God and the universe are two separate things. Atheists tend to wish that pantheists would stop using the term God. So when we define pantheism, how is the idea distinct from atheism?
One way to approach the difference is through analogy. Consider the oak tree and the acorn from which the oak grows. The information or the potential for the oak tree is contained in the acorn prior to the oak existing. We know how the tree will eventually look, because the tree is determined by the acorn. (The acorn needs to have nutrients from the soil; water and sunlight need to be added which is a negative part of the analogy. The acorn does have to order these things however so the analogy is fairly tight.) The question we need to ask with regard to a self causing universe is “What is the universes acorn?”
The oak tree does not develop its leaves through any random process. The causal chain can be traced back to the acorn and we can state quite clearly that the existence of the leaves is caused by the acorn itself. The leaves do not appear randomly, they are determined by the acorn. In our self causing universe we are faced with the question of “why are mental things here?” The existence of human thinking things can be traced back through a causal chain which ends at the universes acorn. The universes acorn had within it the potential for thinking things to evolve.
Necessarily More than Just Matter
There are those of a material persuasion who would claim that the material world is caused by the universes acorn, that the physical world is self caused, and then it just so happens that mental phenomenon have miraculously evolved out of this physical realm quite by accident. This is like claiming that the oaks acorn only has the inherent genetic structure to cause a trunk and branches. Then leaves just happen to be able to grow from twigs on these branches. The leaves, in this case, are a random consequence of the trees ability to grow wooden parts. The point is that the potential for mental things to exist had to be present in the initial “acorn” which gave rise to the universes existence. Pantheism acknowledges this point and declares that the universe is as much a mental thing as it is a physical thing.
The crucial point is that if an object is self caused, then it must be self caused because it is in the nature of that object to cause itself. Self causation has to be derived from the very structure of the thing being caused. Included in this idea is the fatalistic notion that a self causing object could not exist in any other way. That, for instance, if a universe is to create itself then there is only one way that it can do so and therefore this universe is the one and only universe that could exist. This universe is wholly necessary and could not be any other way.
Is Mental Stuff Necessary
The principle of necessity leads to the second part of pantheism which is that mental phenomena are a necessary part of the universe. That from the beginning of time it was inevitable that the universe would contain thinking things, because the universe could not exist in any other way than the way it does exist. Or, given that God and the universe are the same, God’s necessary existence manifests itself in the creation of a universe in which humanity exists.
Different pantheists will express their pantheism in slightly different ways, though fundamentally they will see the universe as a one; a complete whole in which all things are intimately connected. So a physical pantheist may believe that the true nature of the universe is physical, but that emergent mental occurrences are a real and connected part of the universe and thus the universe has evolved to think about itself. A spiritual pantheist on the other hand would probably view the mental realm as a fundamental part of the universe. That it is the drive of creation to manifest spirit and that the physical is a mere means to the universe becoming a thinking universe. A dualist may argue that thinking and physical stuff are both fundamental and that neither is a priority nor a lesser part of the universe and they are both equally important to the ultimate structure of reality.
When we define pantheism we are probably looking at a few subtle philosophical ideas that underpin the main body of pantheist doctrine. A simple principle is that the universe can be considered as a unity. A single thing in which all things that exist are attributes of that one thing. There is a streak of necessity which permeates pantheism and produces the idea that the universe could not have been any other way than the way it is. That all things are how they are because that is the way that the universe must be.
Ultimately, pantheism emphasises not merely necessity and the mental realm but most importantly the connectedness between all existing things. All is one may sound like a glib phrase but it is an idea that is difficult to stray away from. We are all of a piece with the universe from which we have arisen. Whether we are investigating the physical world or the mental world we are always looking at some attribute of the universe. Whatever we say we are usually talking about some feature of the one universe. And whatever we do we are impinging or acting on the one universe. No feature of the universe can be considered or explained without reference to the universe as a whole entity. To gain full understanding of anything we have to place any knowledge we have into the context of the universe as a whole. In that respect, real knowledge can only come when we fully comprehend the universe.
Revere Reality, not its Metaphor
To define pantheism then is not to make a trivial association between God and the universe. Pantheism invokes a natural reverence for the universe and for all parts of it, be they the physical or mental attributes of the universe. Pantheism places nature at the centre of our focus for what should be revered and considered sacred. The universe as a whole becomes the sacred, whether that is the physical universe or the mental universe. This is in strong contrast to theism.
It could be claimed that theism has taken the pantheist metaphor of God and nature being the same thing and turned it into an act of metaphor worship. God as a metaphor for the universe has become the object of worship rather than the real object, the universe itself. Theists have turned away from the creation of a heaven on earth and instead seek to live life so that they can secure a seat in some alleged heaven in the after life. Pantheism addresses the here and now by its reverence of nature. Pantheism has an ecological foundation because it embraces the physical world as sacred. Theism misses the whole point of reverence by turning its spotlight on the metaphor rather than the world itself. When we define pantheism it should be conceived that this reverence for the universe in the here and now is a fundamental part of what pantheism entails. Pantheism revering God is an ecologically sound foundation for humanity, in stark contrast to the worship of a metaphor which is the demand of theism.