Naturalistic Animism, Part II

Here is a simpler argument for a notion I have I call “Naturalistic Animism,” which is a nod to Spinoza‘s “Naturalistic Pantheism.” My earlier post was here. It’s also referred to in Bron Taylor’s writings on “Dark Green Religion,” meaning the idea itself isn’t my invention, though at one point I thought it might be.

There is no supernatural spark, no dual nature to make a thing have life rather than not. There also isn’t a specific definition of life that is universally accepted in the scientific community, though there are characteristics we can observe – many orders of magnitude more complex and organized than non-life, being able to maintain homeostasis and being able to reproduce and evolve. There are other, more specific chemical characteristics, but they may not be universal to all life, though they may be for all terrestrial life. In any event, what we have isn’t a strict definition, but some general characteristics that some non-life could be said to have, but just to a lesser degree. We know of entities such as prions and viruses, though their origins are with what we generally recognize to be life (bacterium or rogue DNA sequences that become parasitic). However, if we go back to the beginning of life (where things get more speculative, of course), there would have been non-life becoming more and more like life and then life becoming less and less like non-life.

Life and non-life, then, are of the same substance and type, differing only in degree. This is an important realization as it may turn out, for example, that universes are subject to a crude form of evolution, with more stable universes such as ours becoming more common in time (this notion is known as the hard anthropic principle). Certainly, entities that are inherently more stable persist and those that don’t, don’t. Who knows what whacky particles were there at the big bang for just a few gazillionths of a second? This is so obvious, it’s hardly worth mentioning except for the fact that this basic property of matter is the first step it always must take towards becoming life. The universe weeds out the unstable. Evolvability evolves and when it reaches a certain threshold, what we all agree to be life then begins. This is when an entity can create copies of itself with unprecedented accuracy, though it only gets better at doing this as time goes on.

Now, we like to think there is something special about life and that, all other considerations being equal, it should deserve consideration. It seems we live in a world like what Zoroaster described, except we know that in the end it is instead the wicked Ahriman who prevails – our universe is doomed to a thermodynamic death where no life is possible. The fact that I just depressed you with that analogy means that you, too, see value in life! Even if we humans become extinct, we hope that life on our planet or somewhere else can at least give birth to some other beings that can contemplate the universe and be depressed by it.

The problem we run into is that the laws of physics tell us that life isn’t anything special (well, it kind of is, but only in the sense that humans are special – we’re simply more intelligent, more social – the “spark” is a difference in degree!). This basic notion is what is called hylozoism (everything is alive or life and non-life are indistinguishable – this term is a doozy and it’s really only defined in a few writings, most of which seem to be attacking the notion). Reality is however the fuck it wants to be, but how we describe reality is up to us, so long as we’re not misleading or lying to ourselves (like religion tends to, almost without exception). Whether we say that life is nothing or whether we elevate the non-life to the status of living – animism – is a spiritual, not scientific question and I make the claim that it is not deception to say that the universe is alive or that it is at least filled with proto-life and pseudo-life everywhere. I would almost go as far to say that it is an enlightening idea that will let us see intuitively what will one day be known concretely about the universe.

Spirituality through nature. It’s not just for dirty hippies, weirdoes and head hunters.

Naturalistic Animism…

Here is an idea that I’ve been swirling around in my head for awhile. I feel that it isn’t quite cooked up yet, but has great potential. But let me know what you think! And be brutal, but don’t be dumb (unless you are dumb, in which case you can’t help it and I’ll allow it).

Spinoza layed outa quasi-religious, yet non-supernatural (one could say, Atheistic) system called naturalistic pantheism. Naturalistic pantheism approaches spirituality through nature from a Judeo-Christian starting point (the way I see it; his audience was Christian). Spinoza begins with the all-powerful God of the Hebrews and ends with an all-powerful, consisting of all things, logical, unthinking “God” (you can just call “him” the universe if you want).

Spinoza’s views have been very influential. Albert Einstein, Arne Næss (founder of the deep ecology movement), Steven Hawkings and countless philosophers have been influenced by Spinoza’s naturalistic pantheism. It has been used as a way to understand human behavior and the universe. Our brains aren’t general-purpose calculators, so there is power in phrases such as “I want to read God’s thoughts.”

I propose a biocentric spirituality that is to animism what Spinoza’s views are to pantheism and deism.

The way is to look at the nature of life itself, which leads us to realize that more things are living than those that have DNA, are carbon-based or eat and shit. I do not speak of extraterrestrials (though I do hope I can meet an alien, even if it’s single-celled, in my lifetime, so long as it’s not murderous), but to a wall that astrobiologists constantly run into.

How do we define life? When going to other planets in search for life (what life chauvanists we are), all we know to look for is something carbon-based (since carbon bonds with, like, everything) and that’s based on water (high specific heat capacity, low freezing point, high melting point, our understanding of pH is based on it, hydrogen stops oxygenation, etc…). However, the truly fascinating thing about astrobiology is that distant lifeforms can be stranger than we ever imagined. That leads us to propose more generic ideas of what life is, but depeding on how we word it, we can exclude things like virii and prions or include things like entire ecosystems or social movements (in extremely broad cases).

I would say something is living if it has an ability to maintain homeostasis in a chaotic environment and adapt (even if the individual can’t, if it can reproduce, then that counts as adapting since even simple asexual reproduction allows a slow sort of evolution). But just as a multicellular organism is made up not only of countless cells, but also a symbiosis of bacterium in the case of animals (you’ve probably heard this before, but bacterial cells outnumber human cells in your body 10 to 1 – that’s probably the main way you keep bad guys out most of the time), an ecosystem containing individual species can itself be a lifeform (please see Lovelock’s work.. this idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds). When we get broad like this, it might seem silly, but it’s just because of what you’ve been taught.

I would accept a broad definition of life, but then lay down an important dividing line – if the lifeform exists within a specific substance and has a clear boundary, within which only it maintains homeostatis, then I say it is a true lifeform (examples: ladybugs, whales, acetobacter). If it exists throughout time and place and has no definite boundary, then it is a spirit (examples: the Earth’s ecosphere, various ecosystems, religious movements).

What Hegel calls a gheist, what Smith calls the invisible hand, what Lovelock calls Gaia, what Jung calls an archetype, these are all spirits. ‘Wait’, you might say, ‘these are radically different concepts, you nit-wit!’ Ah, but cyanobacteria is a very different concept from a flying snake. So there. I know there are holes in this idea and maybe something essential is missing that would improve it greatly. So, have at it, folks!