Pragmatic metaphysics

I have a philosophical problem fermenting in the back of my mind: Is there any pragmatic difference between pantheism and panentheism? In other words, if we trace what follows from believing pantheism (the faith that sees the universe as identical to God) versus what follows from panentheism (the faith that sees the universe as part of God, in other words a subset of God), do the consequences diverge in any significant way?

8 thoughts on “Pragmatic metaphysics

  1. I think (for now) the divergence is hugely significant – basically the difference between believing God is a system of rules ( consequence – Taoism ) vs an Entity ( consequence – Christianity ). The difference is polar.

      1. I am by no means an expert on Taoism. By my understanding, the Tao is not a ‘being’ in any sense of the word, like a god or God that exists separately, or has a separate consciousness. Maybe you could say that the Tao is a synergistic phenomena – The greater than the whole sum of the universe but I think this is different from the panentheistic concept of a God. I could definitely use a lot more reading but I would say that the Tao is the entire set of the universe and yin and yang are subsets, then the hexagrams of the I Ching are further subsets, etc. Also, it’s my Western bias to describe the Tao as a collection of things, when Eastern religions in general tend to think in terms of relationships. So maybe another idea to support Taoism as pantheistic is that it is the summation of the relationships of all the things in the universe.

        1. When I refer to Tao, I’m also referring to God. Tao/God is being inherent in all reality — therefore One — but not confined to reality as a finite person perceives, conceives or intuits it.

          I do subscribe to a perennialist framing of religious tradition, which presents religion as hermeneutically multistable, meaning that the tradition as a whole and each separate part of the tradition (institutions, artifacts, symbols, practices), can be interpreted in different (relatively) true ways by participants within that tradition. The tradition’s multistability allows a plurality of understandings to commune around it (as a complex but unified intentional object of collective faith).

          I think of it like an extreme version of what happens when a parent and child enjoy the Beatles together, or Sesame Street. The parent and the child are enjoying the same song or episode together, perceiving and conceiving it in divergent ways, but they are enjoying it together in a way that makes their togetherness tangible and vivid and real. This togetherness might come from sharing intuitive commonality that defies speech. Later in life, the child might acquire some of the parent’s sensibilities and discover new layers of experience. The parent might evolve in ways that recover some of the child’s less concept-encumbered intuiting of beauty in the sounds, images and motions. These personal developments can be stimulated by the art and they also change the experience of the art, and they make the art matter to us more and more, and we care about it together.

          Religion is like this, except it can unite whole cultures, and accommodate the simplest exoteric understanding or the most esoteric, allowing them to share in something of infinite importance, and participate together in bringing it to life, again and again.

          So, I respect people who see God as a powerful parent existing in some mysteriously apart way. That seems to be part of Western cultures, and as you noted, not as much in Eastern cultures. (I believe Eastern cultures make different tradeoffs in the exoterism.) But in all cultures, a person’s development toward esoterism draws them toward an understanding and practice that situates them as a finite point of being, within incomprehensibly vast being, within infinite beyond-being. Who/What we call God or Tao or Dhamma or One — or refuse to name at all — very much depends on our trajectory of becoming.

    1. But I think you are getting at one of the crucial differences: in pantheism, responsive relationship with God is identical to responsive relationship with nature. In panentheism, responsive relationship with God entails something more than responsive relationship with nature.

      But a pantheist might just fold that “something more” into the responsive relationship to nature. So I’m not sure we’ve gained anything!

    2. I think the “difference that makes a difference” (to put it in Rortian terms) may be that pantheism sees nature as a stable, intelligible order, and panentheism does not.

      Pantheism conceives both nature and God to be available to us through reason. We can expect linear progress in knowing more and more deeply and thoroughly.

      Panentheism, on the other hand, expects deep, epiphanic disruptions to our understanding. Reason is always tentative, and its stability is never long assured.

      By this understanding, Thomas Kuhn’s innovation was the introduction of a panentheistic conception of science!

      I’ve said before that mine is a metaphysics of surprise. Maybe this gets at it:

      Pantheism is a metaphysics of radical reason.
      Panentheism is a metaphysics of radical surprise.

      1. I guess this would depend on which one you think Buddhism is? The Buddha saw the question of “is there a God” as unanswerable in our current state of consciousness and ultimately of no value in solving the problems that cause that state. I actually like the idea of calling a tradition like Zen radical reasoning but I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing.

  2. Is the core difference between the two the belief in a God that exists separately and takes action vs a belief in Nature as a set of rules, an algorithm, that one can interact with but which has no agency or consciousness of it’s own.

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