The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Only Reality

Re-reading Frederick Engels's Ludwig Feurbach and the End of Classical Geman Philosophy (as one does) I was struck by the following much-quoted statement:
the material, sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality.
Engels describes this as a realization to which Feuerbach (a German philosopher who greatly influenced Marx and Engels while they were working out their own ideas) was 'driven', but he plainly agrees with it.

Engels was, of course, well aware that some aspects of the world are 'sensuously perceptible' only indirectly, through instruments and what have you, and he would have been far more delighted than surprised if he could have seen such instruments as the Hubble Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider. Numbers, logical categories and other abstractions he regarded as 'reflections' of the same material world, produced by the activity of the material brain: our consciousness and thinking, he goes on to say, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain.

So we know what Engels had in mind when he talked about reality: the reality we inhabit. This, he says, is the only reality.

Now, you may ask how he (or Feurbach) knew this. But the question that occurred to me as a result of Engels's confident statement was this: where did the idea come from that there could be another reality? I'm fairly sure that for the Greeks and Hebrews - or at least, for Homer and the Bible - everything is part of the same reality. The gods really do live on Olympus. God really is in heaven. And heaven really is up there in the sky, as celestial as the stars. Sheol or Hades really is down below, as material as magma. Spirit really is breath. Spirits (ghosts and gods and so on) are sometimes visible, usually invisible. But so is water vapour.

So where did the idea of a reality outside 'our' reality (but not outside in space, outside in some unknowable way) come from? Did it all come from Plato and some muddle along the lines of: because we can understand numbers, where the numbers live is where we go when we die?

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I suggest this classic be read closely and the impetus to hive off the supernatural from reality will make more sense, (how it then takes off generating its own cultural life, and dare one say, alternate reality.)

I suspect its a compromise generated intersubjectively by a culture admiring Greek thought while religiously ignoring a lot of it's implications, (cognitive dissonance?) and so the spirit world is proposed and accepted in a reserve system, at first like a celtic twilight and later like an inquisitor's dungeon. Plato's cave recreated as a cultural artifact like Eurodisney or that creationist museum.

Snell, Bruno 1953 The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature, New York: Dover.

I blogged on the once-off about this book in an Australian context at Dancing with customary law.

All weirdness comes from culture.

I think you're confusing yourself unnecessarily. I'm sure the Greeks did think in terms of a division between the gods' realm and humanity's - if they hadn't it would make little sense to think of the gods as gods. It's just that they didn't label the zones on either side of the divide as "realities". Rephrase Engels's insight in terms of realms, zones or levels and the mystery disappears - "we know that there are no higher levels occupied by powers capable of determining human existence, there is only human action and material available to it".

@Phil "I'm sure the Greeks did think in terms of a division between the gods' realm and humanity's - if they hadn't it would make little sense to think of the gods as gods"

They did, and more, at least the pre-Homeric Greeks did before the philosophers came along and confused the religiously inclined. Pre-Homeric greeks did not officially believe in individual human agency at all---> all actions/even your thoughts/ were the result of a God putting them there. See Snell above. The Gods might be unreacheable but they were very much a part of this material world and interfere in it every moment of the day.

Phil, your point makes sense but only within the 'world' as informed by the tradition which began with those post-Homeric Greek Philosopers, i.e. it presumes the sense they made of the world, but it's not the tradition they themselves inherited, but one we have created since. Especially since Descartes of course. Your point is in danger of anachronism.

A pre-Homeric would agree with ""we know that there are no higher levels" because they knew that there were 'no lower levels than the Gods intentions' which we sense in our 'minds' this is proved to use everyday when we see these thoughts and feel these feelings the gods send us. The material worlds was the god's realm you see. The magical realm was the real world. Only those who fetished mathematics went on to posit other realms, and caves, and the "super-"natural...

should read
proved to us


proved to use

Actually, three things are being confused here. 1.Non-Material souls. 2. Abstract entities, especially lines and numbers. 3. Unobservable physical entities like atoms.

In Feuerbach's time 3 was the main item of interest. Chemistry was getting off the ground, and some scientists saw atoms as essential to explanation in chemistry. This thought goes back to Boyle, and to Newton via his work on optics.

As for numbers, we still don't know what they are, and we were totally i'n the dark until about 1875. But abstract entities like numbers are of a different nature than atoms, assuming that abstract entities (atoms are not abstract, just unobservable) exist.

Plato codified the idea of a soul, but I know little about this. He did endow souls with the power of viewing abstract entities, i'n order to explain our knowledge of maths.

Plato, through Plotinus.

Thanks Jack. I meant to mention Plotinus but forgot. I don't know the history well enough. I hear that Plotinus was a major influence on the first Christian thinkers.

I may write a fuller response later, but I just wanted to make a few quick comments, especially since Plato has been brought up, and the discussion seems to be drifting towards the Greeks, instead of staying within the context of Nineteenth Century German philosophy, which is where the real answers will probably be found.

Berger is right, that several issues are being run together here. First, we have Plato, numbers, and his famous forms. Plato is notorious for poetically speaking of the world as if it were split into an “ideal” world of forms and numbers, knowable by the mind alone, and the material world revealed by the senses. This cartoony picture is not really borne out by a closer inspection of Plato's writings. For Plato, there is one world with two aspects. The world has an intelligible structure (form) which we come to know through the reasoned use of the senses, not independently of them.

So where did we get the split that Plato takes the blame for? The source lies not (I think) with the philosophers of the era, but rather is found in the murky world of underground Greek religion. It is probably in the mystery cults and in Orphism that we first find something that we would recognize as a “soul”, that is to say something that is the bearer of individual identity, the site of reason, and the vehicle of personal immortality. This idea gets taken up by early Christianity, where it gets joined to the idea of an eternal omnipotent creator god.

Once you have these two, very odd, entities running around in your ontology, some weird consequences follow. Here is where the ancient philosophers come in, trying to figure out how such entities would have to be in order to actually exist. For the earlier ones (like Plato) this seems to be a theoretical exercise. However, by the time we hit people like Plotinus these ideas are taken very seriously.

For example, Plato does point out that if the soul is immortal it cannot be thought of as the same kind of object as, say, tables or chairs. Every object we encounter in the world is composed of parts, and thus can be decomposed. Anything subject to decomposition can't be immortal. Therefore the soul would have to be a simple entity. Since everything with spatial extension is composed of parts, the soul must be non-extended. Similar arguments follow for God.

This reasoning reaches a sort of high water mark in Descartes, who presents of an ontology of nonextended, active, mental substances, and extended, passive, material substances.

Anyway, the point is that answering this question would involve answering the question of why people suddenly took to the notions of the immortal soul and monotheism. I am puzzled by that one myself, but it 'aint Plato's fault.

That was far longer than I intended. . .

What J.R. said.

(With the small addition that Christianity took this murky Greek idea of a soul and democraticised it further(everyone had one not just the Pharaoh Ruler Gods, even slaves) and then mixed it with the Zoroastrian duality good/evil and Judaic monotheism in a new neat package ready for imperial service when later required.)

Succint commentary and philosophy are not easily done.

JR's "why people suddenly took to the notions of the immortal soul and monotheism. I am puzzled by that one myself,"

see Snell above for a fully elaborated process of the creation of the idea of Soul. ?unfortunately not in print?

As to why it gained popularity later, has to do to with the spread of Christianity (slaves first and as then part of an Imperial programme) Apparently, there was a bit of resistance by many ordinary people to the idea of having an eternal soul who believed once you died you were dead.

Thanks everyone, for fleshing things out. All I know about those cults is that they are said to have influenced Plato on the soul. That is why I used the word "codified," which is pretty non-specific.

About Plato on the material world, my guess is that he did believe in two worlds. The material one is in flux and can only approximately be described by some mathematical-geometrical structure (which can vary over time). Such a structure is composed of changeless forms and their connection with matter is a problem both for philosophy (if one is a theoretician) and for textual analysis (if one is a Plato scholar). Remember that Plato's talk of "participation" leaves a lot up for grabs. Plato was a genius, and it's unlikely that he did not know where his presumptive knowledge stopped. So he used a vague term like "participation." But I am certain of nothing here.

George - the only reason I mentioned abstractions and not-directly-observable entities was to head off possible quibbles about what was included in 'the material, sensuously perceptible world'. However we account for these, they are definitely part of the reality 'to which we ourselves belong'.

Phil - I'm not really puzzled or confused (I think) - I'm asking some rhetorical questions to point up the sheer weirdness and (as J.R. and Meika have helpfully elaborated) extremely dodgy and obscure provenance of the idea of a 'world' 'outside' the world we know, outside space and time. And the oddity that this strange idea has become something that's taught to children.

I agree Ken. Although I mentioned Plato I was never a Platonist in philosophy. I've been telling people for years that we cannot have any decent epistemology without a correct account of mathematical knowledge. And we cannot get that without figuring out why maths are so good at describing the world. Sure, in some sense these abstractions must be in the world. But that world ought not to have a duplicate in some Platonic purely abstract world. By my lights then, one must go deeper, and describe how the one world can have a mathematical structure, with no recourse to Platonism. As I understand the present state-of-play, nobody has a decent answer although (thank goodness) very few are Platonists.

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PS. Along with one's epistemology one ought (see above) to have a decent ontology of matter, one that accounts for the applicability of maths in a naturalistic fashion. Historically, the West studied three paths (after rightfully dismissing two-world Platonism). 1. There's Scotus' idea that "forms" are somehow "in things" but can be studied as if they were separate. One then gets geometry and measurement. 2. One can find Scotism incomprehensible and simply deny the existence of abstractions. That's Ockham and others' nominalism, a theory that only concreta exist and that terms for abstractions are at best descriptive aids. 3. There's irrationalism, where one shrugs one's shoulders and claims that only God has insight into such things.

These options weren't purely academic. 1 and 2 were hotly disputed in the middle ages. This helped sharpen concepts and paved the way for algebra and Galileo. Irrationalism (3) never vanished, alas. Well, since Our Host is an SF writer, I'd like to recommend Michael Flynn's Eifelheim, which accurately dramatises 1-3 in an SF story set in the middle ages.

and of course for a Platonist romp of a platonic romance one would suggest Neal Stephenson's Anathem

Ha! You are right, melka. What a good read.


Plotinus' effect on early and medieval Christianity really cannot be understated. Nor can his effect on Sufic and orthodox Muslim theology.


Sigh. Stole my Anathem thunder. Great book, even if it's a defense of hateful Plato.

Not to dumb down a great conversation, but just wanted to ask if you had seen Inception Ken and that is where this is what promted this post?

Good catch. I saw Inception on 2 August. I was already pondering Engels's point but seeing the film may have prompted the post.

Re Snell:

I don't find Snell's book reliable, and the scholarship supporting his claims about early Greek conceptions of agency is dubious. His linguistic proof that early Greeks had no conception of the self (because they had no single word for it) would equally show that the French have no concept of home; and his claim that Homer attributes all human agency to divine control is directly contradicted by Homer himself. (In the Odyssey, Bk. I, Homer has Zeus say: "Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame on us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given.")

Re Plato:

I'll just cut and paste what I've written elsewhere: "Plato saw, rightly, that logical concepts are not reducible to anything physical or psychological or empirical, and his exaltation of the Forms is thus his attempt to convey the irreducibility of logic; but in describing the irreducibility of logic in terms of a realm of irreducible entities, he slid into treating logic as grounded in, and reducible to, the natures of these entities, and so lost his hold on the very position he was trying to defend." (So, as is the case with many great philosophers, Plato's vices are a byproduct of his virtues.)

@Jack Thanks for telling me that Plotinus had a great influence on other religions than Christianity, and that his influence on Christian thought was greater than I had thought.
@ Roderick When I was a student I wanted to read Snell (alas, all those Dover classics!) but heard it was controversial. Thanks for telling me why.

well, I read Anathem more as a parody of Plato than a defense...

Oh no, it's the return of the linguistic turn to philosophical discussions again, Sapir Whorf et all... and the current hot topic: Daniel Everett's studies of the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon

I have not yet read Snell, though he has been on my reading list for awhile.

Few people have been as hated or as loved for as long as Plato. I would argue that the majority of this hatred and love have been directed at him for entirely the wrong reasons. This is the case, not only in general, but in this particular thread. I think he is a bit of a red herring here.

There is more than one way that the concept of “another world” can be cashed out. I will list a few of them below:

1- Vanilla “Middle Platonism”

This ultimately boils down to the claim that abstract objects are just as “real” as concrete material objects, and that the former are not dependent on the latter. Universals and numbers would continue to “exist” even if all instances of them ceased to be, and the truth or falsity of statements about them does not depend on any particular mind.

Most mathematical “platonists” fall into this category, as do Fregeans, and some phenomenologists—hell, even Russell at one point in his post-absolute idealist career. The thing about this view is that the “other world” of abstract objects is perfectly accessible to us. We access it every time we do a geometrical proof or even calculate a tip. It is part of our daily experience and that makes this, participation issues aside, a fairly unproblematic sort of “other world.” You can hold this view and be an atheist, a historical materialist, whatever. . .

Plenty of rationally persuasive arguments can be adduced for such a view, but I will not go into them here.


Perhaps I ought to but this one in quotes as well, to avoid drawing the ire of any Kantians lurking about. This view boils down to the idea that reality as it is in itself is unknowable. We can only know appearances. We can, however, know that many of the features of appearances (their spatial and temporal properties, their causal interconnections, etc.) are not part of reality as it is. This gives us two “worlds,” a world of appearances in which we live, and the inaccessible reality behind them. Plenty of rationally persuasive arguments may be adduced for this view, as Kant and his children have shown us again and again.

The Engels quote seems to be directed at vaguely Kantian views like this one, not so much at “platonisms”. He tells us that we do have access to the real world, and we do know its nature. Correct me if I am wrong though, as I have yet to read that book.

(continued below)

3- Multiverianism

For the sake of comprehensiveness, we can include contemporary multiversers in this list too. The multiverser holds that everything that is possible is actual, and thus that there is an indefinite number of universes.

This is a very different sort of “other world” as the other worlds here exist in precise the same way that our world does.

This view is appealing because it answers the question of why the universe is the way it is, why we have the scientific laws that we do, but it does so without invoking chance (which is no explanation at all) or some omnipotent, eternal designer. The price is high—severe ontological promiscuity—but considering the alternatives it can look quite appealing.

4-Abrahamic Religions

Immaterial but concrete, active being exist. We call them “God,” “Angels,” and “Souls.” They inhabit the other worlds known as heaven and hell. These other worlds are immaterial, largely inaccessible, but otherwise like our world—however that is supposed to work. Various versions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism belong here.

I suspect that this view may have been Ken's real target, since the post was tagged “atheism.” Note that (4) cannot be combined with (1) without substantially modifying (1), since it requires concrete, immaterial beings. This is one reason why the Neoplatonists are so very different from Plato. (4) can only be combined with (2) if we substantially modify (4), as Kant, in fact, did. We might be able to combine a sufficiently weird version of (4) with (3), especially if we use a modal ontological argument.

This view really has no rationally persuasive case behind it. The reasons people hold it must be sought in history and individual psychology.

We could keep expanding this list to include Many Worlds QM types, Nick Bostrum, David Lewis, and scores of others. The point is, there are lots of kinds of other worlds, and lots of reasons one might believe in them.

"It's all in Plato..." (Sorry.)

It comes from dreams, of course. And even cats dream.

J.R. - Thanks for that interesting classification.

The Engels quote seems to be directed at vaguely Kantian views like this one, not so much at “platonisms”. He tells us that we do have access to the real world, and we do know its nature. Correct me if I am wrong though, as I have yet to read that book.

That particular quote is part of a summary of the views of Feurbach as against Hegel (and Christian theology). In another chapter Engels argues against Kant's 'unknowable thing-in-itself'.

'The book' is actually a short pamphlet - Engels took the opportunity of an extended book review to clarify his views and those of Marx, and how they had developed in relation to Hegel, Feurbach, and other philosophers.

We might be able to combine a sufficiently weird version of (4) with (3), especially if we use a modal ontological argument.

This argument has been used, or something that seems like it. As I understand it, it goes like this:

There is a possible world in which God exists. But if God exists, he exists necessarily. Therefore God exists in all possible worlds. Therefore God exists.

As Leighton Anderson used to say on Usenet: I'm not sure I agree with that.

I do think this idea goes back much further than Plato. The Raven's comment on dreams is a huge part of it. Also the idea of the possession is another part of it. There is an argument to be made that the oldest type of Gods were disembodied spirits that acted by possessing people, animals, storms and so on. (different from animism that the stones always had intelligence.) Certain religions such as Voudoun, Voodoo, Santeria and so forth believe this today. But a lot of Greek stories about "so and so being the son of a god who coupled with his mother in disguise as her husband" sounds suspiciously like possession. A lot of the mystery cults may have just been hearkening back to that old time religion! Their adherents certainly thought so, though new religions almost always do claim to be revivals rather than inventions. At any rate, possession requires disembodied spirits. That in turn implies (though does not require) another realm outside the ordinary world. So though Ken is just making a point about weirdness, the question of how it came about has a certain interest. While Raven's point about dreams may be the key one, I suspect the link to the very old idea of possession should not be ignored either.

It's very plausible that the first notion of a soul separate from the body comes from dreams. (Engels thought so and says so in this essay.) The notion of possession is also based on real experiences of dissociation brought about by dancing, hyperventilation, drugs, naturally occurring psychoses etc. But I don't think these notions require belief in another reality, just in some usually invisible components of the world. Combine all that with an over-sensitive agent-detection capacity of the human mind and you have that old time religion up and running.

Possession does not provide, in itself, for the idea of a supernatural world.

According to Snell, who at least provides a reframing thought experiment on these ideas, the pre-Homeric Greeks thought we were all possessed by the Gods 24/7. All the time. This was normal. Life was not possible otherwise.

The only individual agencies were the Gods, some rulers and/or demi-gods who could always be re-possessed when required.

This was not supernatural possession from another world, it was the entire natural world. It's animistic, yes, but calling it a "spirit world" is ethnocentric or chronocentric or something. Nature was a set of powerful conflicting agencies but these agencies did not belong to mere mortals (though perhaps in some traditions shamanic or mystery practices could take you to those heights, or depths.)

The idea that you had or 'possessed' your own soul is a more recent innovation, (from classical Greece in this case)and can be see as an overthrow of the natural order, and not the other way round, as seems natural to us today.

For me, there is no supernatural world because if it exists then it is natural. Ancients may have had similar ideas, even if some of the objects in that natural world I see no evidence for.

Also, playing around with the idea that, in fact, my sense of human individual agency is an artifact of a certain culture, technology and economy [and may be a figment of my imagination LOL] allows one to play around with some 'magical' ideas.

Even if this is very bad for story telling as we know it.

Re: Snell - you might consider as an alternative, currently in print, Eric Havelock's _Preface to Plato_. Note also that *individual* passages from _the Odyssey_ may not prove much about pre-Homeric thought, as the editorial homogeneity of that text is in some dispute.

The original question was how anybody ever got the idea of an alternative, non-material world. I believe it is safe to say that this began with the experience of trance specialists called "shamans" for whom such a world is a direct experience. IIRC the best current scholarship identifies the introduction of this into Western culture as a conceptual model, and not just a ritual practice, was in Thrace ~6th century BCE, with the origins of what became the Orphic cults. (As JR alludes to above.) Throughout the historical period in question the Orphic cults were clearly regarded as not native to Greece, ie not the same as the Olympian polytheism. The identification of Orpheus as a son of Apollo was a much later syncretism. Also, interestingly, Orpheus was identified with Christ very frequently in the first two centuries of the Christian era.

This from memory so I'd be glad for corrections or updates based on recent citation etc.

Finally I am pretty sure the Ontological argument proves that if a supreme being exists, that being's existence is logically necessary to the universe in which it exists - but this does not bring us any closer to answering the question whether such a being exists in the first place!

Meika: You have successfully convinced me to move Snell a few notches up on my reading list. I also second Laufeysson's recommendation of Havelock.

Ken: Given that the Engels is so short, I may run through it this weekend.

Ken, Laufeysson, Raven, and Gar Lipow: Dreams and shamanic experience are both plausible sources of a belief in another world—at least some versions of the belief. I remember a Ghanian academic once told me that in traditional Akan culture you can be held responsible for things you do in the “dream world”—to the extent that a sexual dream about the Ashanti queen merits the death penalty. The result—Akans do not talk about their more interesting dreams much.

Though it is a source of belief in another world I would hesitate to say it is the source. The point I was trying to make in my overly long post above is that there are many ways one can come by such a belief.

Ken: I am wondering would count as belief in another world as far as you are concerned. After all, one person's “other world” is another person's “region of this world.”

Ken, Laufeysson: Why did I bring up the modal ontological argument? As I understand it, it derives its force from possible worlds semantics. That which is necessary holds in all possible worlds. That which is possible holds of at least one possible world. Thus, if something is necessary in one possible world, it is necessary in all possible worlds. On the face of it, then, something cannot be necessary to only one world. One can get around it by tinkering with the accessibility relation, with the result that it is not valid in modal systems weaker than S5. Or, one could hold a different concept of modality—Diodorian temporal modalities for example. Even if you accept S5, all it gives you is the conclusion that God is either necessary or impossible. There are pretty good reasons to think that the latter is the case.

I am not a logic guy though, so the above might not be quite right. I do tend to think that S5 is the “right” modal system, so I appreciate the force of the argument, even if I don't buy it.

What are "possible worlds" and models based on them if not an example of the kind of absurd unreality that Ken was wondering how people ever got comfortable with the idea of? Using them without caveats in this context could almost be considered begging the question.

I still think the best answer to "how did people (implicitly Western people in the cultural arc including 19th century German philosophy) start thinking this way" is "a series of historical accidents beginning in Thrace". The answer to the followup question, which may have been intended from the first, "How do people justify this prima facie absurdity now that it has become habitual" is "They claim it's not absurd because 'numbers have to live somewhere, don't they guvnor?'." Which argument has innumerable variations, some of almost unimaginable complexity. If we were having a proper discussion in a pub so you could be certain of my good will I'd tell you I thought these arguments were of greater psychological importance than ontological.

But this is all just a bit of fun. I'm not usually so anti-intellectual but since the question is about how philosophy emerged from primeval naivete I'm inclined in this case to take the opportunity to imaginatively identify with the naivete. :-)

Possible worlds are harmless, so long as they remain just that--possible. People think counterfactually, and I tend to view possible worlds talk as just a picturesque way of bringing out certain features of that ability.

I would agree with the "series of historical accidents" claim, however, I remain skeptical of the "beginning in Thrace" clause. It strikes me as a little too Hellenocentric. True enough, one often finds beliefs like this in cultures that self-consciously claim a Greek intellectual heratige, but I have a hard time believing people would have swallowed these beliefs whole did they not fit in with their "indigenous" belief systems. One finds evidence of shamanic beliefs in pre-christian Europe and Africa after all.

Part of my earlier posts was the implicit claim that the "numbers have to live somewhere" argument does not yeild the sort of "other world" that people want. Given enough time, I would argue that Plato full well knew this. However, I will admit that platonistic arguments do tend to get psychologically tied up with "spirit world" beliefs.

Laufeysson: I should probably mention that my digression on possible worlds was me just trying (and failing) to make sense of your talk about something being logically necessary in one world, not an attempt to further complicate the discussion needlessly.

On a completely different note, I am curious as to who you lean on for your assertions about Orphism. Most of the material on Orphism I have read is, to be frank, overly speculative crap. I would love to find a scholar who is, well, not full of crap.

Gentlefolk, this might be less relevant than it appeared to me, but...

"This state, this society, produce religion - an inverted consciousness of the world - because it is an inverted world ... it is the fantastic realisation of man, because man possesses no true realisation."

I came across this quote from Marx reading Haldane who was reviewing C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy. Although generally critical (and aren't you surprised at that?}, he comments that Lewis has the virtue of consistency with his premises. In Perelandra, he portrays the races of Mars as "unFallen", unlike Man; they are thus able to casually converse with "angels" and have direct experience of a Creator and afterlife. Because of this, they have no need of prayers or religious ceremonies. A person fully adapted to his environment, says Haldane, would have no religion.

The implication is that the religious urge, having received its initial impulse from dreams, got a big boost when humanity moved from the primitive communism of the hunter-gatherers to agricultural civilization.

Yeah, yeah; I've been reading Chris Harman. So shoot me, he's a great writer.

The Haldane review is here:

Also, It should be pointed out, from conversations I've had with Jehovah Witnesses at the front door, that not all Christians believe in a supernatural world, and that's why they don't like blood transfusions or cremations where there are no bones to physically resurrect.

I tried to point out that their God must either be a bit dumb or not omnipotent if this was the case but they were nonplussed at this point.

J. R. asks: I am wondering would count as belief in another world as far as you are concerned. After all, one person's “other world” is another person's “region of this world.”

Good question. I don't want to draw too heavy a distinction, particularly when we're looking at traditional beliefs. Examples:

My ancestors, I gather, believed in Tir Nan Og, the country of the young, an afterlife paradise which they said was to the West of Scotland (or of Ireland). I don't know if they thought of it as actually somewhere out there in the Atlantic. Of course we now know that far to the west the land of the blessed and of eternal youth exists, and is America :^)

The Scottish band Runrig have a haunting lyric:

There must be a place
under the sun
where hearts of olden glory
grow young ...

I always hear that as 'hearts of old in glory', which sounds Christian. But anyway, they don't think it's literally under the sun.

When we visited Cape Reinga at the northern tip of New Zealand, we were told that the Maori believe that their spirits travel there underground, emerge for a last look back at Aotearoa, and then travel under the sea to Hawaiki, where their ancestors came from. Actually, when standing there watching the two seas meet, that seems entirely believeable. I suspect that asking whether Hawaiki is in this world or another would be a stupid question.

I think the distinction is rooted in the same sort of tactic as 'pie in the sky' and the 'God of the gaps'. That is, religions that originally claimed to improve one's life in the only real world got to be in the position of this being patently false. As for Judaism, which I know better, we got by for awhile with 'bad things happen in this world to the extent that we have not lived up to the Covenant, and the Nations have power over us to that extent as instruments of the Higher Will', but even we eventually succumbed to the idea of there being a different world that worked according to the Rules.

Similarly, the 'God of the gaps' is a God only active where you cannot see Him, and 'outside of your causal horizon' might as well be 'another world'...I can only reference a They Might Be Giants song, "Where your eyes don't go":

It seems to me that the distinction comes as soon as people realised that the ephemeral spirits were not in fact real but of their own creation. Then as now most could not face reality and created whatever dogma they felt necessary to justify their denial.

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