This blog explores some questions that are on the edge of my current understanding. Here are some to get us started: Could it be that supernatural deities and spirits in the world of ancient mythology correspond in significant ways with what we would variously think of today as abstract ideas, ideals, values, and goals in terms of modern psychology? And could it be that ancient spiritual powers have not really disappeared, as many modern atheists would believe, but rather have largely just altered their appearance through a process of psychological transmutation and internalization? In other words, could it be that the spirits which once populated the enchanted world—all the way up to the highest heavens and down to the lowest depths—continue to populate our minds, imaginations, and cultures in various forms of the abstract ideas, ideals, values, and goals we live by?
A few introductory disclaimers deserve to be made before delving into things. First, my approach is primarily (though not exclusively) pragmatic and phenomenological: I am interested in exploring the correspondences between how supernatural deities and abstract entities appear to function in the context of ordinary human experience. As a result, I am not particularly concerned with settling ontological questions, such as whether supernatural and abstract entities exist in some manner independently of the human mind, or whether their existence is entirely dependent on the human mind. I will present some observations and ideas related to issues ontology, but to a great degree, I want to set the ontological questions aside in order to focus on pragmatic and phenomenological issues. To do so, I would like to attempt to remain methodologically agnostic about issues of ontology as much as possible, since ontological issues can otherwise preoccupy and exclude other worthy considerations.
Second, I am interested in seeing what similarities, parallels, equivalences, and correspondences there may be between 1) supernatural deities, spirits, and God, and 2) abstract ideas, ideals, values, and goals as they (once again) 3) appear to function in the context of ordinary human experience. What is the relevance of noticing such functional parallels and similarities? The relevance is that evidence of functional correspondences and equivalencies may indicate that there is more in common between these two domains of human experience than we may have otherwise initially thought, from which you can draw your own conclusions.
Third, I am not intending the make the reductionistic claim that God, deities, and spirits must be nothing but an abstract ideas or ideals or values or goals, or vice-versa for that matter. Our symbolic representations of supernatural entities may very well refer to spiritual realities which independently exceed them. However, I am interested in exploring to what extent the supernatural and the abstract have functional similarities within human experience. And again, you can draw your own conclusions from that. Now with the parameters set, let’s begin our inquiry.
Supernatural deity, spirits, and abstract ideas
To start things off, what similarities and parallels exist between ancient deities, spirits, and abstract ideas? First of all, they are each formless, invisible, immaterial entities that are scientifically unquantifiable and immeasurable. Deities and spirits cannot be seen, smelled, or touched in the manner of physical objects, and neither can ideas. They don’t have natural properties, forms, or limits (at least insofar as they spiritual or abstract). Rather, gods, spirits, and abstract ideas are supernatural, metaphysical objects distinct from physical nature. And yet, while deities and ideas are distinct from nature from the perspective of ordinary human experience, they both have some kind of influential, interactive relationship with our activities in the natural world. As you read these sentences, you’re interacting with abstract ideas that have the power to influence the way you perceive, think, and behave to the degree that you mentally accept and assimilate them.
There are also apparent pragmatic similarities between how supernatural deities, spirits, and abstract ideas relate to moral behaviour. There are good ideas and bad ideas, as they say. Not all ideas are morally equal. Ideas can “possess” individuals and groups who believe in them and faithfully live by them, for better or for worse. Indeed, the psychologist Carl Jung has suggested, “People do not have ideas. Ideas have people.” When a person accepts and believes in an idea, the idea exercises a kind of authority over the person, influencing and directing his thoughts, emotions, and behaviour in accordance with its notions. The more focused or preoccupied or obsessed one becomes with an idea, the more power it has over the person. So long as an idea is accepted, it exerts a high and potentially uncritical level of control over the person who believes it.
These widely accepted assumptions show up in modern psychotherapies for us today. For example, a basic assumption of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which is depicted in the “CBT triangle” is that our beliefs, emotions, and behaviours mutually influence each other. This means that believing in unrealistic ideas about ourselves, others, or the world can produce maladaptive, dysfunctional behaviours and emotional distress. So the treatment approach of CBT essentially involves identifying and modifying such beliefs for the purpose of modifying our distressing emotions and dysfunctional behaviours in order to foster better mental health.
It turns out that we interact and relate with physical objects in the natural order and with metaphysical objects in the supernatural order, which dynamically overlap and intersect in our lives. We are constantly interacting and relating with abstract ideas, sometimes manipulating and changing them, and sometimes being manipulated and changed by them. Put in more religious language, the gods you put your faith in will influence your emotions, behaviours, and outcomes of your life. So be careful what you worship.
Another example is the notion of “cognitive fusion” in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Cognitive fusion refers to the ways we sometimes “fuse” ourselves with our thoughts in ways that can give such thoughts more and more power to influence our lives in potentially harmful ways. We may believe ideas like, “I’m weak.” “I’m a failure.” “I’ll always be like this.” “I can’t cope.” “I’m right and they’re wrong.” “My family’s to blame.” “I don’t need help.” The list is practically endless. The issue is when we get “fused” with certain thoughts, beliefs, and judgements, we lose our ability to see them for what they are and become more susceptible to being controlled by them in ways that limit and restrict and negatively impact our lives. Russ Harris, a therapist and ACT instructor, describes cognitive fusion in some very intriguing ways. He says that when we become fused with unhelpful beliefs that it can feel like we’re constantly getting “pushed around” by our negative thoughts; “entangled” in our negative judgments; “stuck” and “trapped” in our negative patterns of belief; “caught up” in our negative viewpoints; and even “controlled” by our negative ways of thinking.
Now let’s once again put this in more religious language. In the ancient mythological world, there are good spirits and there are evil spirits that both have the power to influence and direct the thoughts, emotions, and behaviours of those who are devoted to them. In extreme cases, a person may be subject to “spiritual possession.” And when a person becomes “possessed” by an evil spirit, for example, it is as if they are trapped and stuck within the spirit’s power and influence, as the spirit entangles and controls their thoughts, feelings, and actions according to its malevolent purposes. So clearly, we still acknowledge that ideas have the power to influence our lives, while religious individuals, ancient and modern, would likewise generally affirm that spiritual forces have such power too.
Incidentally, there appears to be a close etymological relationship between the words “theology,” the study of God or divinities, and “theory,” which the OED defines as “a system of ideas intended to explain something.” The word theory comes from the ancient Greek “theorein,” which means “to look at” and is associated with contemplative vision and seeing, while the object of contemplation has traditionally been God or some close variation. Could it be that the theoretical and the theological are functionally isomorphic? Is theory theological and is theology theoretical?
Now, regarding the ontological question of whether spirits or abstractions are real. This seems to potentially be akin to the question of whether abstract mathematical entities are real. This is a debated topic, with people arguing for realist and antirealist ontologies of mathematics. Interestingly enough, the mathematical realist may argue that mathematical truths are hyperreal in some sense; that they are more real than some object belonging to the physical order of things. But as far as the function of mathematical abstractions are concerned, realists and antirealists still unanimously agree (as far as I’m aware) on the immense functional utility of mathematics as it applies to understanding, explaining, and gaining practical mastery over natural phenomena. So perhaps the ontological questions are not the most important ones to solve, for now at least.
Supernatural deity and spirits and abstract ideals, values, and goals
Now let’s consider what functional similarities in human experience there might be between deities and spirits on the one hand, and abstract ideals, values, and goals on the other hand. There will be some overlapping themes in the section as we continue, since ideas often have implicit ideals, values, and goals, while ideals, values, and goals often entail implicit ideas. We can distinguish these abstractions in theory, but often we cannot separate out in practice. So there will be some overlap and variations on themes already explored. And a general rule of thumb to keep in mind: the higher and more complex the abstraction, the higher and more complex the god (and vice-versa).
Interestingly enough, supernatural deities and spirits, as well as abstract ideals, values, and goals, tend to organize hierarchically, as higher-level ones transcend and direct lower-level ones. Spiritual warfare between our gods and abstract conflict between our ideals, values, and goals also regularly occurs as this dynamic, perpetual process unfolds in the heavenly realms.
According to an ancient religious scheme of things, the “Great Chain (or hierarchy) of Being,” ontology, morality, and teleology are all closely and inextricably correlated along a vast continuum of reality stretching up to the heavens. God, in this scheme, is simultaneously the absolute Being (ontology), Good (moral ideal and value), and End (goal) by which human activity is properly organized and oriented. So setting ontology aside and looking at things from a functional perspective, it is simply the case that God in this religious scheme of things is the simultaneously greatest ideal, value, and goal we can and should organize and orient our lives around. This is part of what worshipping God functionally means for many religious people.
Worshipping God or gods can be meaningfully described in terms of orienting your activities around seeking certain abstract ideals, values, and goals, while seeking certain abstract ideals, values, and goals can be meaningfully described in terms of worshipping God or gods. For example, a businessman who devotes all of his attention and energy towards making as much money as possible could be said to be worshipping the deity of Mammon. Or a woman who devotes all of her attention and energy towards researching and learning as much new knowledge as possible could be said to be worshipping the deity of Scientia. And a man who devotes all of his attention and energy towards practically serving and supporting others who are in need as much as possible could be said to be worshipping the deity of Love. You get the point.
As with ideas, some abstract ideals, values, and goals are better than others insofar as they relate to moral behaviour. Moreover, behaviour can become organized and oriented around supernatural deities and spirits, as well as around abstract ideals, values, and goals. And again, they all appear to have similar functions in our lives. We can live our lives by a supernatural deity and we can live by abstract ideals, values, and goals. Both have implications for how we behave and what we devote ourselves to. In other words, they all have some interactive, organizational, orientational relationship with the practicalities of living, despite being supernatural or abstract reference points.
Now, regarding ontology. Are spirits and deities real? And does God exist? Perhaps an equally relevant question is do abstract ideas, ideals, values, and goals exist? According to the ontological standards of materialism, abstract ideas, ideals, values, and goals do not exist, since they do not have measurable physical properties. But in terms of ordinary human experience, we certainly live as if they exist. We constantly relate and interact with abstract ideas as spiritual objects, and we organize and orient our lives around supernatural objectives indicated by the abstract ideals, values, and goals we live by. And when we live by abstract ideals, values, and goals, these spiritual entities influence our thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and pursuits. It not much of a stretch to say that they exercise a degree of dominion, authority, and power over us, or that they can possess and rule and control us, or that they guide and direct us according to their purposes. Just try openly dialoguing with your own ideals, values, and goals and often new insights and directions will emerge through the conversational process.
In light of all these considerations, are supernatural spirits and deity functionally isomorphic with abstract ideals, values, and goals in terms of how they organize, orient, and influence human behaviour? Does worshipping God or being possessed by a spirit functionally correspond to actively devoting one’s life to the pursuit of abstract ideals, values, and goals? And if so, do these functional correspondences suggest supernatural and abstract entities share an ontological identity? Have we created a separation between these two domains of human experience that is more illusory than real? And have the gods really disappeared or have they just changed their clothing?
The answers to these questions are unclear to me, and you can decide for yourself. Personally, I currently have more questions than answers on these things. One thing exploring these issues can do is make the supernatural and abstract domains of human experience strange again, especially for those who assume there’s nothing strange or mysterious about them. Considering the strangeness can potentially upset the comfortable worldviews of both religious and nonreligious people alike. And like with all things, opening ourselves up to entering into what’s strange and unfamiliar is an eternal pathway to advancing our understanding of the meaning of our human existence beyond what we currently know and accept.