Category Archives: Binsenweisheiten

Is the Pharisee Theist, or Athiest?

If you say you’ve got a church, people will quickly ask about your God. Most of my friends would describe themselves as Atheists. All of them grew up in a consensus that matter moves by mechanical force, and agency is something rather mysterious, but surely individuated, residing in (primarily human) individuals. If you assume all this, then you probably have an opinion about the God question.
If you can get away from the assumptions about mechanisms and volition, then the question of God or Not becomes meaningless.
So what if we recognise that it is impossible to adopt an unaccented, culture-free, standpoint.  From where I’m standing, I see some variation in how things are and how things are understood.  What are the kind of things that co-vary with Abrahamic faiths, and with those other things that we might (with due awareness of our biases) describe as faiths, in full awareness that we see this as Christians, from a Christian culture?

  • Creation: where does anything come from? Go to?
  • Death: meaning of
  • The relevance and dominion of scientific objectivity
  • Sin, Karma, Ethics, Oughts, and Lust, Desire, Intoxication
  • The mechanics of intentionality
  • Relation to direct ancestors
  • Division of responsibility between clerics, legislators, soldiers, and others
  • Embedding of the present in a historical narrative
  • Authority, in the most general sense
  • Revelation
  • Tolerance for the simple, the odd, and the eccentric
  • The relation of good to evil
  • Availability of altered states of consciousness
  • Manner in which pain is borne
  • The definition of “us”
  • Aesthetics, and the sensorimotor embedding of daily life (and of ritual)
  • Prevalence and status of monastic-like communities

The Pharisee is interested in all of these.

Everything Happens at Once

Everything happens all at once.  Inching forward, at a steady rate of one second per second. When we tell a causal story, such as describing the action of a machine, we pick out one strand in that whole, prioritising it over all others, and generating an artificial cleft between foreground and background. But everything is part of everything, all flowing together.  Heraclitus’ vision, I think.  Among that we pick out agents and the inanimate, and bring into being shitty gods, minds, subjects.  

This is not a moving slice through a 4-dimensional manifold, as Parmenides and Newton would have it.  This has very many more dimensions, for it must accommodate your unfolding locus of experience and mine.  The number of dimensions is not at issue, really.  Professor Bohm seems to assure us of that.  What matters more is how one treats the divide between subject and object.  How we apply the carving knife, for the image we are carving is our self portrait.  Like a mewling infant, we do not know what we look like, but we react anyway, sticking out our tongue at the world as it sticks its tongue out at us. 


We fret about first and third person perspectives. Some work on second person perspectives. Let’s stop this constricting tyranny of linguistic number and allow the perspectives to multiply freely. Let us encourage multiplicity of perspectives.

I prick my finger. The pain is tiny and intense and brief. It is small and focussed. It is all that is there, for just an instant. Then it abates, and the finger itself comes into focus. Tiny, trivial, and briefly, all that exists.

Billions of years from now, the Earth is a dead ball, to be consumed by a solar cataclysm. Nobody cares, because somewhere along the line, everyone died and nobody replaced them.

Between these two, there exists an infinity of perspectives, each with its own causal structure, its own rationality, its own story.

We wrestle, and fail to topple, hard questions of the other and the view of the other. We fight military battles, insurgent battles, domestic battles, political battles, all with right on our side, and not on the side of the other. The other does the same. Right, it seems, is everywhere.
Me against my brother. Me and my brother against my cousin. My cousins and brothers against our neighbours. Our family and neighbours against those from the next town. All the local townspeople against our more distant countryfolk. All the people of the country against the foreigners (near). Us and near foreigners against the distant foreigner. Where do we stop? Do we wait until the alien attack to talk some sense? Or do we recognize that this was ever so, and that the gradient goes further, beyond the species boundary. Limited human rights for Apes. Primates over mammals. Mammals over reptiles. Vertebrates over invertebrates. Animals over fungi and plants. Life over . . .
And there it ends.

For whatever life is, we are.

The pharisee has colleagues . . .

. . . of course. The Anthropologists (culture), the Linguists (language) and the Geneticists (nature) are all trying to provide detail to the word ‘we’. But they don’t talk much to each other.

One prominent characteristic of Wikipedia and the crowd-sourced self-description of the world, is that it allows disparate communities to engage in some kind of cross-disciplinary chatter, albeit at a fairly superficial level. Usually, each discipline takes itself far too seriously to even try to make sense to the unwashed.

The ascription of agency varies across the global population too. I don’t think too many people have pointed out that the psychological solipsist model has profound implications for spiritual doctrine too. Animists differ, and could not sign up to psychology. But this is not divvying us up by language, culture, or genetic inheritance. The way in which we construe the relation between experience and the world provides an orthogonal direction, putting economists apart from shamen, and phonologists apart from historians. And we can map this, not by the genome, but by analysis of the language of intentionality.

 The P-world doctrine allows us to accord the experiential realm of a single organism a position in our ontology, without committing ourselves spiritually in one way or another.  That has to be a useful thing.


It might help if the Pharisee put his cards on the table, and said, once, if not for all, what he believes:


  • There are necessary epistemological limits to any finite being
  • There are no distinct inner and outer realms of existence
  • Most attempts to understand minds/consciousness/experience (MCE) start with the world and try to derive MCE from it. This is perverse.
  • The CSP starts with experience and seeks to derive the world
  • Language is intersubjectively constituted. Being linguistic, we interpret the world we meet using linguistic concepts. The world is thus largely collectively constituted. We are also collectively constituted.
  • Autonomy lies in the eye of (some other) beholder
  • The passage of time is a curious feature of human experience. It is not objectively real in any sense.
  • In experience, subject and object are not separable entities.
  • Any useful or satisfying notion of self is not co-extensive with a singular locus of temporally unfolding experience.
  • Agency is a descriptive trick, that can never lead to a closed model.
  • The use of personal pronouns is tricky.


We need not belabour the apparent similarity between us and bonobos.  Increasingly, we find evidence of similarity between us and some surprising counterparts, like cuttlefish, or dogs.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  To look at the ape connection is to believe that “we are the product of our genes”.  But you can look at forms of coupling, at lots and lots of different kinds of things, and see “us” just as surely. Because we are not merely the product of our genes.  That is not what it is to be “us”, even though we increasingly see what “that” is.  “We”, the word, increasingly refers to media, coupling media.   We need to learn to read the surfaces around us, with due accord paid to our differences as well as our commonalities.