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David Ray Griffin

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From David Ray Griffin, God and Religion in the Postmodern World: Essays in Postmodern Theology, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989, 84-87. 

Modern Antianimism and the A Priori Rejection of Life after Death

David Ray Griffin

Although it has conventionally been assumed that the modern worldview, which first emerged in the seventeenth century, was based on reason and experience and was inherently hostile to theology, the truth seems to be that it was originally based more upon theological and ecclesiastical than empirical considerations.  This point, which has been introduced in previous chapters, is discussed more fully here, with particular attention the topics of “miracles” and life after death.

Understood in context, the chief characteristic of the modern worldview, which was originally known as the “new mechanical philosophy,” was that it was an antianimistic philosophy.  It stood in opposition not only to Aristotelian animism (which made organisms paradigmatic, even regarding a falling stone as “seeking a state of rest”) but even more emphatically to a wild mixture of Hermetic, Cabalistic and Neoplatonic “magical” Renaissance philosophies, some of which were strongly animistic.

In these animistic views, matter was understood to have both the power of self-motion and the power of perception.  Each unit was often understood to be a microcosm, somehow reflecting the whole universe within itself.  Action at a distance was widely understood to be a natural phenomenon: if all things are perceivers rather than blind bits of matter, no reason exists to suppose that all influence must be by contact.  The “magical” or “miraculous” could therefore occur without supernatural intervention into the natural order of things.  Also, the divine reality was understood more as the anima mundi than as an external, supernatural creator.  Sometimes this divine “soul of the world” was understood pantheistically, sometimes more (to use a later term) panentheistically. [1]

The founders of the modern worldview and their ecclesiastical supporters did not like these tendencies.  One of the major reasons was that the idea of self-moving matter could lead to mortalism, the doctrine that, when the human body dies, so does the human soul.  (Or, in today’s language, the so-called mind or soul would be identical with the body or at least the brain.)  If the body is composed of self-moving parts and yet decays, the self-movement of the soul provides no evidence for its immortality. Against this mortalistic heresy (which threatened to undermine the authority of the Church, especially insofar as this authority rested on the “keys to the kingdom” and the correlative threat of hell), the new mechanical philosophy provided a defense.  If the body is regarded as composed of inert, insentient corpuscles, argued Robert Boyle and others, it will be clear to people from their powers of perception and self-movement that they contain something that is qualitatively different from moral matter.  The mechanistic view of nature was therefore originally an integral part of a dualistic worldview accepted for largely theological reasons.[2]

The Renaissance animisms could also lead to atheism or, what was generally considered the same thing, pantheism.  If matter is self-moving, the universe is perhaps self-organizing.  If so, the order of our world provides no evidence for an external creator God.  An atheistic philosophy was obviously seen as detrimental to the Church’s authority.  So was a pantheistic or panentheistic philosophy, insofar as it implied that God was immediately present to everyone, rather than being mediated only through a hierarchical church.  Also, the Church could threaten the disobedient with hell no better in the name of a pantheistic or panentheistic deity than a nonexistent one.  The mechanical, antianimistic philosophy was again seen as the answer.  Newton was only the most prestigious person to argue that a natural world understood as composed of inert bits of matter demanded an external God who created matter, put it in motion, and imposed the laws of motion upon it.  Newton also argued that neither the cohesion between the atoms in a rock nor the apparent gravitational attraction between the stellar bodies could be inherent to matter itself.  These phenomena therefore pointed to an external God who imposed the appearance of mutual attraction upon matter.[3]  A mechanistic view of nature, afar from being viewed as hostile to theistic belief, was regarded as the best defense for it.

The Renaissance animisms, because they allowed for action at a distance as a natural phenomenon, were threatening to the Church’s belief in supernatural miracles.  If events such as reading minds, healing by prayer, and moving physical objects by thought alone can occur without supernatural intervention, then the miracles of the Bible and the later history of the Church do not prove that God has designated Christianity as the one true religion.  Because the “argument from miracles” was usually the chief pillar of the Church’s evidence for its authority, this naturalization of the Church’s “miracles” was a serious threat.  Once again, the mechanistic philosophy seemed a godsend.  Marin Mersenne, Descartes’s predecessor in establishing the mechanistic philosophy in Catholic France, had at first used Aristotelianism in his battles against the Hermetic, animistic philosophers (such as Robert Fludd), because it disallowed action at a distance.  When he learned of Galileo’s mechanistic philosophy, he turned to it, partly because it made even clearer the impossibility of action at a distance—in a machine, all influence is by contact.  Accordingly, when events occurred that could not be explained in terms of the principles of natural philosophy—and Mersenne and most other people in the seventeenth century had no doubt that such events did occur—then a supernatural agent had to be involved.  The Christian miracles were thereby really miraculous, that is, supernaturally caused.  The mechanistic philosophy, far from being opposed to belief in the miraculous, was originally adopted in part to support this belief.[4]

In sum, the mechanistic view of nature was adopted by the first philosophers of modernity for primarily theological reasons (which were closely related to sociological ones) and was part of a dualistic view of the creation and a supernaturalistic view of reality as a whole.  This view was supernaturalistic in that God existed outside the world and could intervene in it at will, interrupting the normal causal relationships.  This belief in supernatural miraculous intervention rested, in turn, upon the conviction that the world does not exist naturally or necessarily (as would be suggested by the idea that God is the soul of the world).  Rather, the world exists contingently or arbitrarily, having been created ex nihilo on the basis of a divine decision.  In other words, the basic God-world relation is not a natural, given feature of reality; equally unnatural are the normal causal relations between the creatures.  God freely chooses how to act in relation to the world and therefore can choose to act in extraordinary ways from time to time; and because the normal causal patterns of the world were arbitrarily imposed on the world, they can be freely interrupted at will. This supernaturalistic view of the God-world relation can be and has been held without the mechanistic view of nature; but in the seventeenth century this mechanistic view of nature was seen as the best way to support belief in the supernatural God, a supernatural soul, and supernatural miracles.

This strategy backfired.  Because of various problems inherent in supernatural dualism, it soon turned into an atheistic materialism, in which there could be no miracles and no life after death.  I will mention several of these problems.

The dualistic view of a spiritual soul in a mechanistic body created an insoluble mind-body problem.  How could there be any interaction between an experiencing soul and nonexperiencing, inanimate matter?  The soul is not an impenetrable substance which can push against other things, but a spiritual reality which operates in terms of values and final causes.  The body was said to be comprised of impenetrable, nonexperiencing things which can neither receive nor contribute values but which operate solely by pushing and being pushed. The seventeenth-century dualists, being supernaturalists, solved the problem by appeal to God: what is impossible for nature is possible for supernature.  But that appeal became increasingly unacceptable to intellectuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially after the acceptance of the theory of evolution, according to which human beings evolved out of simpler species.  Although a few people overcame dualism by adopting an idealistic position, saying that matter is not really real, the dominant solution was to declare mind not to be really real.  It was said to be identical with the brain, or at best an epiphenomenal by-product of the brain with no power of its own.

The supernaturalistic doctrine of God encountered several problems.  The problem of evil led an increasing number of people to reject the idea of an omnipotent being who could intervene in the world at will.  The growing rejection of the Bible as infallibly inspired removed one of the major bases for assuming the existence of a supernatural being who sometimes totally determines events in the world.  The mind-body problem was paralleled by a God-world problem: If a finite mind cannot interact with insentient matter, how can a divine mind do so?  It became difficult also to understand how the divine mind could influence the human mind and thereby by experienced by it.  The seventeenth-century dualists had for the most part insisted on a sensationist view of perception, according to which we can perceive or experience things beyond ourselves only through our senses.  This doctrine was held even more rigidly after mechanistic dualism collapsed into mechanistic materialism: If there is no soul distinct from the brain, then all perception must come through the central nervous system.  Belief in the reality of God could therefore have no experiential basis. For these reasons, supernaturalism became agnosticism or outright atheism.

As the supernaturalistic God died, so did belief in miracles.  The mechanistic view of nature implied that action at a distance could not occur naturally, especially after this mechanistic view was applied to the human being as a whole, so that a soul outside the mechanism was denied.  The rejection of the supernatural God meant that events involving action at a distance could not happen supernaturally either.  Because they could happen neither naturally nor supernaturally, it was simply concluded, a priori, that hey could not happen period.

These three rejections—of the soul, God, and miracles – were mutually supportive.  The denial of the soul as distinct from the body and acting upon it removed the primary analogue for thinking of God as distinct from the world and acting upon it.  The denial of God, in turn, removed the only basis for explaining how spiritual soul and mechanistic body could relate to each other.  And, just as the denial of a supernatural God removed the basis for understanding how miracles could happen, the denial of miracles removed one of the main bases for believing in such a God.

For our purposes here, the main point of this story is that every possible basis for believing in life after death was removed.  The transition from dualism to materialism meant the denial of a soul which could survive the demise of the body naturally.  The collapse of supernaturalism into atheism meant the denial of a God who could give us life after death through a supernatural resurrection of the body.  And the a priori rejection of all phenomena traditionally called miracles meant that such phenomena could not provide credible evidence for life after death or against the worldview that ruled out its possibility.

The antianimistic view of nature, which was proposed and accepted in the first phase of modernity in part to buttress belief in life after death, thereby led to a worldview in the second phase of modernity that made life after death impossible.  This second phase of the modern worldview is still the reigning worldview in most intellectual circles.

[1] On these Renaissance views, see Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980); Hugh Kearney, Science and Change 1500-1700 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971); Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (Boulder, Col.: Shambhala, 1978); Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of The World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981); Brian Easlea, Witch Hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy: An Introduction to the Debates of the Scientific Revolution 1450-1750 (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1980); Margaret C. Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1720 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976); James R. Jacob, Robert Boyle and the English Revolution (New York: Franklin, Burt Publishers, 1978).

[2] I have summarized the general motives for the adoption of the mechanistic view in the second section of the introduction to The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals, David Ray Griffin, ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988).  With regard to dualism and mortalism in particular, see James R. Jacob, Robert Boyle and the English Revolution, 172, and Brian Easlea, Witch Hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy, 113, 234-35.

[3] Eugene Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modern Science: Belief in Creation in Seventeenth-Century Thought (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1977; Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985), 98-99, 149; Brian Easlea, Witch Hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy, 112, 138.

[4] Easlea, op. cit., 98-95, 108-15, 132, 135, 138, 158, 210; James R. Jacob, Robert Boyle and the English Revolution, 161-76; Robert Lenoble, Mersenne ou la naissance du mécanisme (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1943), 133, 157-58, 210, 375, 381.


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