Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

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:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

Revelation versus Manifestation

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • grung0r

    Why is there something rather than nothing? Because the natural creative power of being must be; it cannot fail to create; it necessarily generates.

    I asked before, and you didn’t respond, so I’ll try again. How is this not tautological? You say outright in the above quote that the creative power is a necessary result of being. No contradiction is possible against such a formulation. You have done nothing more then to define your not-god as necessarily true. There’s no there there.

  • SAWells

    Summarising:

    Things exist and stuff happens.

    Eric thinks this is divine.

    That’s nice for you.

  • SAWells

    And by the way, Eric, practically anything, other than the existence of gods, is consistent with atheism; phlogiston is consistent with atheism.

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

    Unfortunately, “the natural creative power” has no explanatory power. But I can accept it as a token or label for whatever about the process of the universe is beyond my understanding. And as such it evokes in me the kind of feeling I associate with others’ use of the word “holy”. But as it is not mine to protect or sacrifice I do not think if it as appropriately called “sacred”. (And of course “divine” would take it into the realm of utter nonsense.)

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    And at this point I’d say that the theory of natural creative power is trivial in exactly the way that formal logic is trivial. The predicate calculus doesn’t tell you anything in the sense that it has no content whatsoever. But formal logic is not the end of the story.

    • grung0r

      So basically, if I’m parsing your terribly written comment correctly(Starting an entire statement with “and”??? Neglecting to mention what or whose predicate calculus you are referring to? seriously?)you concede that “the natural creative power” is tautological, but you think for some insane reason that you also failed to mention that formal logic is also tautological, and thus the whole story is not being told, but you decline to tell us what the whole story is. Is that about right?

      If it helps, I was not accusing you of making a logical tautology, as you did not provide a logical formula. I was accusing you of making a rhetorical tautology. I’m sure had you provided a formula, I’m sure it too would have been tautological, but things didn’t go that way.

    • Dan L.

      Although I tend to agree with the commenters here pointing out that natura naturans has no explanatory power, is defined circularly with respect to the problem it’s supposed to solve, and is inherently problematic for a number of reasons (what do we mean by “creative” here? Are quantum fluctuations really instances of “creation” or “creative power”? How does it help us understand them to think of them that way? What do we mean by “power” here? presumably not the time integral of an energy term…) it is absolutely true that formal logic can only ever express tautologies. This is how mathematics and formal logic work: you have premises or axioms, you have definitions in terms of those axioms, and you have conclusions — the truth of which depend entirely on the content of the axioms and definitions. Where you get depends 100% on where you start. Mathematical and logical reasoning is absolutely tautological.

      What’s interesting is how remarkable (the word used by mathematicians to describe particularly surprising, clever mathematical results) some of these tautologies end up being.

    • KG

      No, it’s not true that mathematics and logic can only express tautologies. A tautology is a formula true in every possible interpretation. This encompasses a proper subset of logically valid formulae.

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

    But formal logic makes statements about relationships between the truth values of propositions. Such statements are falsifiable if we test them against our normal sense of truth applied to a set of propositions which correspond to what we think of as real-world observations.

    So far as I can tell “natural creative power” is just a name for something. (I described it before as “whatever about the process of the universe is beyond my understanding” but I should probably rephrase that as it may include aspects of the process that I understand as well.) In what sense does it constitute a theory?

  • felicis

    You (Eric S.) say, “Nominalists deny the existence of abstract objects.”

    You evidently did not read the link you provided: “Thus there are (at least) two kinds of Nominalism, one that maintains that there are no universals and one that maintains that there are no abstract objects.”

    So, I guess you are only using ‘Nominalist’ in the second sense?

    You continue, “Natural creative power is a universal; as such, it is an abstract object.”

    Are all universals abstract objects? By the fact that there are two types of nominalists, this seems to be in dispute at least. And that’s ignoring your claims that (1) Natural Creative Power exists (NCP); and (2) NCP is a universal. Could it (assuming it exists) be a non-material object? Why not? I’ll note that wikipedia says, “For Spinoza, natura naturans refers to the self-causing activity of nature…” Could this be interpreted as an equilibrium state in a dynamic system? In which case, it seems like it fits into ‘mathematical object’ rather than universal. Or do you mean some other interpretation of that phrase? If so, what is your interpretation?

    You go on to claim (with no justification attempted) that, “This power [NCP] is natural, immanent, ultimate”, and that these qualities lead to the conclusion, “and thus at work in every natural thing.” Is that so obvious that, even if I accept that NCP is natural, immanent, and ultimate, that it is at work in every ‘natural thing’? (By the way, what is a ‘natural thing’ – is it necessarily a material thing? Why didn’t you include this in your ontogeny?)

    Speaking of your ontogeny – you never did respond to my questions about it. Are they too ignorant (and I do admit a near complete ignorance of philosophy) to be considered worth a response?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I didn’t provide the link, Dan did. But yes, there are various flavors of nominalism. Today (since the work of Hartry Field in the 1980s) most philosophers would define nominalism as the denial of abstract objects (both universals and mathematical objects like numbers and sets). For justification of my claims about natura naturans, you’ll have to turn to earlier posts in this series. Yes, natura naturans would be non-material. All universals are non-material. Naturalism is not identical to materialism; many (but not all) naturalists affirm the existence of lots of non-material objects. And note that I offered an ontology, not an ontogeny. Your questions are good, and my plan is respond in future posts.

    • SAWells

      You will not find justification in Eric’s earlier posts. Assertions, yes. Invocations of the names of the honoured dead, yes. But justification, not so much. I do encourage you to check those earlier posts and the comments therein.

    • grung0r

      For justification of my claims about natura naturans, you’ll have to turn to earlier posts in this series.

      Interesting. In the “Criticizing Wicca: Energy” thread, you said this:

      As for the ultimate immanent creative power of being (natura naturans), Wiccans, many atheists, and myself have no problem affirming its existence. Future posts will provide some arguments.

      Since that comment, you have written the following posts:
      Atheism and Beauty
      Do Atheists Worship Truth?
      Some Naturalistic Ontology
      Criticizing Wicca: Levels

      Presumably the arguments for natura naturans are to be found in one of those. Where exactly?

    • felicis

      Ah – let’s see…

      “…nominalism as the denial of abstract objects (both universals and mathematical objects like numbers and sets).”

      So ‘abstract objects’ as a class contains both universals and things? Why is that not in your ontology (apologies for the earlier mis-typing).

      Are there any such people that truly deny both universals and all mathematical objects (are there any abstract objects that are not one or the other)?

      “For justification of my claims about natura naturans, you’ll have to turn to earlier posts in this series.”

      I did look at this post, but you mention only that “The Wiccan deity is also similar to natura naturans.” without giving any justification that natura naturans itself is ‘natural, immanent, or ultimate’ in any but the trivial sense that the laws of nature are ‘natural, immanent, and ultimate’. Is that what you mean? Natura naturans is just the sum of the laws of nature?

      My biggest problem comes when you say things like, “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.”

      What is “a power of being”? What does it mean to be “active”? What do you mean by, “It is the power of natural existence itself.” To what ‘power’ are you referring? (My idea of power is the differential change in energy with respect to time – but I think that is not the usage you have here). I am still seeing this NCP as a mathematical object – why do you say it is a universal? How does one differentiate the two?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      You may really be helped by Donald Crosby’s excellent book A Religion of Nature. It’s easy to read, it’s not expensive, and it’s available on Amazon.

    • Eric

      Even better, it’s free from our library – though that will take some time, I’m sure, to get through. Also – which of my questions should I expect this to address?

      Since it is you who are using the terms [power, power of being, etc.], perhaps you could explain what *you* mean by them?

      Also – I’m still confused about your ontology – your classification is both incomplete (leaving out ‘abstract objects’) and unclear (why are you distinguishing geometric things from mathematical things, for example). Since your later posts are going to depend on this background, shouldn’t you clear it up sooner rather than later?

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    The ontology (which is hardly mine, it’s fairly standard analytic metaphysics) includes both abstract and concrete objects. You can make that your top division if you like: the abstract includes the mathematical and the universals; the concrete includes everything else. That’s an equivalent division which is, in fact, often more useful. Geometrical objects like space-time points are, obviously, in space-time; hence they are not abstract and not mathematical. Mathematical points are abstract, such as tuples of real numbers. Good comment!

    • SAWells

      “The ontology (which is hardly mine, it’s fairly standard analytic metaphysics)…”

      It’s not me doing it wrong, it’s all of us doing it wrong, so that makes it ok…

  • felicis

    I’m glad you appreciate the comment, but – “Geometrical objects like space-time points are, obviously, in space-time; hence they are not abstract and not mathematical. Mathematical points are abstract, such as tuples of real numbers.”

    How is ‘space-time’ as well as the points it contains *not* a mathematical object? The entire theory is a mathematical model! You are confusing the map with the territory, and it is really making a hash of your use of the terms ‘mathematical’ and ‘geometric’. While this may be standard philosophical usage, speaking as a mathematician, it is horrible mathematical usage of the terms. If philosophers are going to use the tools and ideas of mathematics and science, you should use the terms the way everyone in those fields uses them, not co-opt them and change the meaning to suit your ideas. (Which really seems to be most of what is going on with this series of posts.)

    You might want to read Feynman’s lectures on physics – “Philosophers, incidentally, say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, naive and probably wrong.” I don’t think that he means by this that philosophers aren’t sound thinkers, but that they tend to want to take simple overviews of complex physical theories and apply them as though that was the complete theory. Your separation of ‘space time points’ and ‘mathematical vectors’ exhibits just this kind of naive approach to what the scientific theory of spacetime is actually saying. You are positing some kind of concrete existence for a mathematical description – and you are not providing any justification for doing so. It’s not that you are wrong, but that you are giving me no reason to think you are right.

    • SAWells

      I think fundamentally Eric’s problem is that he thinks ideas, such as numbers, mathematical techniques, truth etc. exist independently of minds; the Platonic error. He’s over-interpreted the fact that some ideas have objective content, i.e. they don’t depend on the opinion of any particular mind, to treat them as entirely mind-independent, when in fact if there were no minds at all none of these ideas would exist. That’s why his ontology is so cluttered with ninety-seven different categories of Stuff that Exists, when most of them are actually just different kinds of idea.

      As a scientist, I can work quite happily with Stuff That Exists (matter, energy, force-carrying bosons, brains etc.) and Stuff That Happens (turbulence, evolution, thoughts, minds etc.). I doubt this will make Eric happy.

    • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

      Actually, I would settle for just “Stuff that Happens”.

    • KG

      I’d put it differently: anything exists if there are truths about it that do not depend on the decision of any cognitive agent. In this sense, numbers and other abstract objects exist; but they don’t exist in the same sense as material things, and specifically, they don’t do anything and cannot be “at work” in anything.

    • Dan L.

      “Confusing the map and territory” is exactly right. In my experience, scientists tend to lean towards model-based views of the applicability of scientific theories. I think few physicists would assert that space-time points are “real” in the way Eric is suggesting they’re real. Rather, they’d assert that space-time points are components of the model described by relativity, and that as part of this model they provide tools that (contingently) have turned out to be good for modeling the observable behavior of the universe.

      I’m also very suspicious of “traditional” philosophical ontologies. They don’t seem to have provided very nutritious fodder for scientists who are actually trying to determine what the universe is made of and the rules under which it operates — and I find that rather curious. If philosophers did have a correct or even merely a good theory of being/becoming one would think it would end up being one of the scientists’ most frequently used tools. But traditional ontological models don’t seem to help scientists at all, and in many cases lead to “how many angels can fart on the head of a pin”-style arguments completely untethered from the world of human experience. For example, the notion that charge, spin, and mass are “universals” and that this conclusion is somehow supported by science. It is not. Photons have no mass and no charge. Higgs boson, should it exist at all, will have no mass or charge either. “Spin” is a property that can have a zero value so when we have a particle with spin 0 should we think of it as having literally “no spin” or perhaps “zero spin”?

      At any rate, the whole notion of metaphysical universals like Eric’s suggesting here is, as far as I know, almost exclusively a Platonist conception. And it’s not just “positivists and nominalists” who have problems with Platonism.

    • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

      Nicely put! esp. Para#1 where I’d add “matter, energy, force-carrying bosons, brains etc.” along with space-time points as just “comoponents of the model”.

    • KG

      Formal ontologies can be very useful – in database merging, automated natural language understanding, etc. The error is to think that there is one correct ontology: ontologies are useful or useless, not correct or incorrect, right or wrong, true or false.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    Surely scientists ought to offer an ontology. But they don’t. They are in remarkable disagreement about what exists and what does not exist. So it’s hard for me to understand why anybody would complain when philosophers step in to try to systematize the ontology of science.

    Here’s the question: is Max Tegmark right or not when he says that everything that exists mathematically also exists physically. That’s an ontological question.

    • Dan L.

      Surely scientists ought to offer an ontology. But they don’t. They are in remarkable disagreement about what exists and what does not exist. So it’s hard for me to understand why anybody would complain when philosophers step in to try to systematize the ontology of science.

      I disagree. Where to start?
      1. Scientists are not in “remarkable disagreement about what exists.” The entire history of knowledge has been one long argument about what exists so there’s absolutely nothing “remarkable” about scientists also having disagreements along these lines. It actually makes them normal. Confusion over what exists is normalcy and has been throughout human history.
      2. To the extent that there is consensus over what exists it is a consensus that has been inspired by the work of scientists. The relationship of mass and energy is a fine example of an ontological relationship provided by science (as opposed to philosophy) and is widely believed to be correct.
      3. (2) shows that you’re wrong: to the extent that reliable ontological relationships are being elucidated the work is being done by scientists. So scientists DO offer ontologies. They may not be the beautiful, Apollonian behemoths philosophers are always looking for, but unlike philosophical ontologies they do have the virtue of consistence with empirical evidence.
      4. I disagree that philosophers “stepping in to systematize the ontology of science” is a good idea. Premature optimization is the root of all evil. I think the reason for such ontological chaos is that we simply don’t have the information we need to correctly systematize ontology in the first place. Going ahead and trying to systematize ontology without the appropriate information will inevitably lead to incorrect and bizarre conclusions. I am far more worried about ingraining incorrect answers to ontological questions as a sort of dogma than I am about living with some degree of ontological confusion.

      Here’s the question: is Max Tegmark right or not when he says that everything that exists mathematically also exists physically. That’s an ontological question.

      It certainly is, but I don’t think it’s even remotely an interesting or useful question. The answer will depend entirely on how we define “existence,” “mathematical existence,” and “physical existence.” It will never tell us anything more about the universe than does the statement “bachelors are unmarried men.” The actual discussion of what Tegmark means by “mathematical existence” and “physical existence” might be productive but simply answering the question one way or another solves nothing.

    • Dan L.

      We may be able to compromise, though. Here’s another perfectly good ontological question, much simpler than yours:

      “Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”

      Can philosophers, particularly specialists in ontology, settle this simple question? The requirement here is to provide a solution such that anyone who hears or reads it would say something like: “Oh, yes, that’s quite satisfying; clearly, all tomatoes must be X,” where “X” is either fruit or vegetable (or my favorite solution in which all fruits are vegetables and tomatoes are always both — but this one is unsatisfying to almost everyone I’ve proposed it to).

      My personal experiences with this question suggest that no such solution is forthcoming. But if I’m right that we can’t settle simple questions about what tomatoes are to everyone’s satisfaction, how can we hope to systematically settle more thorny ontological questions such as what time is or what the del operator is?

    • KG

      A good example. For some purposes it’s useful to classify tomatoes as fruit, for others as vegetables. An ontology placing them under either heading (or for that matter, both) could therefore be useful in specific circumstances.

    • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

      “Surely scientists ought to offer an ontology.” – WHY?

      “So .. philosophers step in to try to systematize the ontology of science.” What remarkable presumption!

      Would you just “step in” to my study, say that I “ought” to tidy up, and proceed to “systematize” the many growing and drifting piles of paper on the floor in order to match *your* idea of how *my* ideas should be organized?

  • KG

    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.

    Sheesh. Do you really think that counts as an explanation? “Goddidit” would do just as well.


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