This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.
The concept of natura naturans has a long history in philosophy, and especially in atheistic metaphysics. Natura naturans is natural creative power, and from now on I’ll use that phrase. Natural creative power is a universal; as such, it is an abstract object. Nominalists deny the existence of abstract objects. So, nominalists are likely to deny the existence of natural creative power. Some atheists are nominalists; however, atheism does not entail nominalism. You can be an atheist and affirm all sorts of abstract objects. The thesis that there exists some natural creative power is entirely consistent with atheism. This power is natural, immanent, ultimate, and thus at work in every natural thing.
Natural creative power (natura naturans) is the ultimate immanent creative power of being. This concept is found in atheistic philosophers like Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Donald Crosby. On my previous analysis of the relevant Wiccan texts, it is also found in Wicca as the ultimate Wiccan deity. For religious naturalists like Crosby, it is an atheistic concept of the divine; it is an atheistic concept of the sacred or holy. Natural creative power is not the theistic deity (and certainly not the Christian or Abrahamic God). After all, any theistic deity is a thing (a particular), while natural creative power is a universal.
An atheist is entirely free to recognize the existence of natural creative power. Schellenberg describes a “reality unsurpassably deep in the nature of things” (2010: 19, my italics). On my interpretation, this unsurpassably deep reality is natural creative power. For Shellenberg, affirmation of this unsurpassably deep reality is ultimism. He writes:
‘Ultimism’, as indicated earlier, is my label for the general religious view that there is a reality unsurpassably deep in the nature of things and unsurpassably great (metaphysically and axiologically ultimate, as we might say), in relation to which an ultimate good for us and the world can be attained. The idea of a caring God concerned to enter into personal relationship with us represents one way of trying to give more specific content to this view; . . . But there are other attempts to fill out this notion in existing nontheistic religions – consider monistic Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism – and it may well be filled out in many completely new ways in the future. (2010: 19)
Atheistic religious naturalism and atheistic nature-religions (such as atheistic Wicca or other atheistic neo-paganisms) are examples of this ultimism. To cite Schellenberg, they are some of the “completely new ways” that “more specific content” can be given to “a reality unsurpassably deep in the nature of things”.
Natural creative power is a universal; it is not a thing – it is not a particular. It is a power of being that is active in every existing thing. It is the power of natural existence itself. For naturalists, this means that it is the power of being in every existing thing. It is at work in every creatively active thing in nature. It is at work in the quantum fields; in the cores of stars fusing lighter nuclei into heavier nuclei; in chemical and biological evolution. It drives the complexification of nature (Chaisson, 2001, 2006).
As the ultimate immanent power of being, natural creative power is being-itself. It is being-as-being, the power of existence itself, the power to be rather than to not be. It’s obviously not supernatural and it fits perfectly well into the scientific ontology I sketched in an earlier post. The existence of being-itself is certainly consistent with natural science. The same line of reasoning that justifies the existence of scientific universals (like mass, spin, charge) can be extended to justify the existence of an abstract power like being-itself.
The existence of natural creative power is hardly a radical idea. Being-itself is simply what all beings have in common. If you affirm that many distinct beings exist, then you also affirm that they have existence in common; they all share being-itself as their ultimate universal or power of being. And surely your affirmation is based on the observation of things: the existence of being-itself is empirically justified just as much as the existence of properties like mass or charge. Natural creative power participates in explanatory relations: Why is there something rather than nothing? Because the natural creative power of being must be; it cannot fail to create; it necessarily generates.Religious naturalists have reverence and admiration for natural creative power, especially as it is manifest in the myriad forms of life on earth. Natural creative power is not a thing; therefore, it is not a god. But it is holy, sacred, and divine. Atheists are not prohibited from affirming the existence of holy, sacred, or divine powers. Nominalists and positivists might be prohibited; but there’s no reason atheists have to listen to them.
References and other posts in this series are below are the fold:
Chaisson, E. (2001) Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chaisson, E. (2006) The Epic of Evolution: The Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press.
Schellenberg, J. (2010) Skepticism as the beginning of religion. 31st Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference. Claremont Graduate University. February, 2010. Thanks to Steve Schuler for pointing me to this article.
Other posts in this series: