Dr. Eric Steinhart draws on his philosophical background to create a naturalistic foundation for the Pagan Wheel of the Year. To better understand axiarchism, the philosophy on which Dr. Steinhart draws to create a Naturalistic Pagan theology, see Part 1 and Part 2 of his essay “Axiarchism and Paganism”.
At the Spring Equinox, which begins Ostara, the strength of the day rises to meet the strength of the night. The light briefly comes into balance with the darkness, and then surpasses it. Ostara represents the triumph of the light. It signifies the emergence of a novel type of illumination, a new concentration of holy fire.
For Pagan Naturalists, this new type of illumination is life. Perhaps our universe contains an enormous plurality of planets covered with life; perhaps life flourishes on many billions of planets in the Milky Way. But we are aware of only one inhabited planet, namely, our earth. So, to continue their interpretation of the Wheel, Pagan Naturalists focus on the earth. On earth, molecules congregate to form living cells, cells evolve into complex multicellular organisms. These organisms become reptiles, mammals, and primates. On earth, life flourishes, covering the planet with rich ecologies.
Inanimate things are indifferent to their own possibilities. Methane molecules do not care whether or not they burn. But living things sort their possibilities by preference: they assign utilities or desirabilities to those possibilities. And, when they are driven away from their preferred possibilities, they suffer. Suffering involves desire. When an organism suffers, it wants to not be in the condition which aroused that suffering. If an organism suffers from hunger, it wants to not be hungry. The meaning of any desire is a class of possible universes in which that desire is satisfied. Every desire aims at the truth of some proposition. Hunger means I want that I have food. It aims at the truth of the proposition that I have food. If any organism desires some proposition, then the meaning of that desire is the set of all possible universes in which that proposition is true.
When an organism suffers, it makes demands based on its preferences: it demands to exist in some universe in which it is in a positive state rather than its current negative state. It demands to be in a state of higher value. If an organism suffers from hunger, then it demands to exist in a universe in which it is not hungry. All suffering is a demand for the actuality of valuable potentials which were not actualized by this universe, but which could have been actualized, and which are actualized in other possible universes. Since suffering makes demands based on value, it makes axiological demands.
An axiological demand is a proposition whose truth follows from the nature of the thing which makes it. If you are hungry, your biological nature demands food; you do not have to say that you are hungry in order for your nature to make that demand. Axiological demands do not have to be spoken or written down in order to exist. Moreover, things that lack the capacity for thought and speech can make axiological demands. Bacteria neither think nor speak. Yet a bacterium, dying from exposure to an acid, demands to be healthy and to persist; it demands to divide, to make an infinity of offspring. These axiological demands follow from its nature as theorems follow from premises.
Since every axiological demand is a petition for some more valuable situation, every axiological demand is a natural prayer. On this naturalistic approach to prayer, prayers need not be spoken nor heard. To pray is to produce axiological demands. Every suffering thing prays: humans pray; birds pray; plants and protozoa pray. They pray for the actuality of possible universes in which their desires are satisfied. The content of a prayer is a set of possible universes in which the suffering which aroused it is satisfied. It is a set of possible universes in which the prayer is answered. Any universe in that set is an answer to the prayer. A possible universe which answers a prayer is a utopia.
All suffering demands that our universe be other than it is, and that the sufferer be other than it is. If you are hungry, then you do not actually exist in any of the possible universes in which you want to exist. What exists in those other universes are versions of yourself which are not hungry, and which, by that very fact, are not identical with you. Suffering means that you want to be somebody else, somebody whose life resembles your life in every respect except those respects which involve your suffering. These distinct but similar versions of your life are your counterparts. As living things are born, suffer, and die, they demand the actuality of possible universes in which their counterparts do not suffer, in which they are happy and immortal. Organism by organism, our universe demands to be other possible universes. And so our universe surrounds itself with utopias which satisfy its axiological demands. These utopias are the answers to the prayers of suffering things. But they are not yet actual; they lie in the shadow of mere potentiality.
Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. He is the author of four books, including Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death. He is currently working on naturalistic foundations for Paganism, linking Paganism to traditional Western philosophy. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He loves New England and the American West, and enjoys all types of hiking and biking, chess, microscopy, and photography.
More of The Wheel of Evolution.
One thing I’m trying to do in my science fiction writing is explore a pagan viewpoint on other planets. I’m writing a book now about people living on an asteroid that’s been converted to a spaceship. Their entire world is man-made but they let the ecosystem evolve without constant input from them. They simply observe, and adjust their society to function in harmony with their world. I have to do a lot of tweaking of the Wheel. It’s a lot of fun, actually.
I’m thinking a lot about your language here. I’m not convinced that the statement “a bacterium demands to be healthy and to persist” makes sense if we take the word “demand” in the usual sense of an expressed requirement. In your sentence, at least for me, the word becomes too much of a metaphor. But I’m always looking for language that puts the organic states and needs of bacteria, plants, insects, and fish on a par with creatures like mice and humans that have some awareness. We usually distinguish between the animate creatures that suffer and the sub-creatures like plants that don’t. Yet both humans and bacteria obviously go into states of change when they don’t get enough to eat. And it is clear to us when plants and bacteria look healthy or seem sickly. What language would describe the basic inner experiences, and their desirability or harmfulness, of both totally mindless plants and mindful people? What everyday language is independent of whether the organism has or lacks awareness? “Suffer” is generally confined to creatures that feel pain; they have a conscious experience of acute discomfort. So I wouldn’t say a plant suffers. But I might say that a plant struggles, since “struggles” describes physical changes and not just mental experience. So does “need,” as in, the plant needs water. “Lacks”? “Grows”? “Shrivels”? I know this all is a departure from your view of needs and suffering as demands, but if you have any thoughts on verbs for organic states that are evaluative and can be taken literally without implying the organism has awareness, I would appreciate it.