Pandeism, Pantheism, and Panentheism
|The symbol of Pantheism, by the world Pantheist movement.|
Reader Knuje asked me to comment on the following question:
I'd like your opinion as a scientist on a spiritual question -- given our current state of knowledge of the mechanics of our Universe, is it plausible for an entity to be "omniscient" and "omnipresent" and yet exist as detached from our physical Universe?
It appears to me that the question centers on the difference between what has traditionally been called "Pandeism" and "Pantheism" on the one hand, and "Panentheism" on the other hand.
In the philosophies of Pandeism and Pantheism, the deity and the universe are one and the same. There are two ways one can approach this. First, if one simply defines the deity to be synonym with nature itself, then one is simply playing a game of words; no new qualities are attributed to nature other than the known qualities of nature itself. Second, one may postulate that qualities normally attributed to the deity (consciousness, intelligence, omniscience, etc.) are, by operation of the identification of nature with the deity, inherent properties of nature itself; in other words, one postulates that the underlying fabric of nature embodies the properties of being conscious, intelligent, sentient, etc. It appears to me that only the second approach to Pandeism or Pantheism is a philosophical position interesting to debate, since the first is merely an arbitrary word definition.
Now, according to the philosophy of Panentheism, the whole of nature is in the deity, but the deity transcends nature. In other words, although nature is God, God is not limited to nature. Here, the entire approach hangs on how we define "nature," since the deity is supposed to transcend that definition. Indeed, if we define "nature" as the totality of existence – both known and unknown aspects – then Panentheism is, by mere definition, incorrect, since we leave no space for anything that might transcend such definition.
What alternatives are we left with? I submit that there is one reasonable alternative: What we call "nature" is but the totality of our current perception and understanding of existence. This encompasses everything we can possibly attribute to nature at the present time, but leaves room for aspects or properties of nature that are, today, entirely unknown to us. In that case, Panentheism states that the deity transcends nature (according to this definition of nature) to the extent that our apprehension of nature is incomplete. The difference between Pandeism and Pantheism on the one hand, and Panentheism on the other, then boils down to an epistemological question centered on human cognition.
It would, in my view, be presumptuous to assume that our cognition of nature is mostly complete. History has shown us that people who have held such optimistic position in the past have been proven wrong again and again. Famously, physicist Lord Kelvin stated, only a few years before the Relativity revolution led by Albert Einstein, that physics was done and only required minor fine-tuning. Therefore, if we leave open the possibility that, in the future, we may become cognizant of aspects of nature that would be even more unimaginable to us today than Relativity was to Lord Kelvin, then we could say that Panentheism seems like a reasonable philosophical position to take (at least as far as the semantic definition of the word).
The real question, of course, is whether such yet unimaginable aspects of nature would be compatible with, or at least suggestive of, the qualities we normally attribute to the deity: consciousness, intelligence, omniscience, etc. That is a question probably nobody can answer today. Yet, the paradigms of scientific thought have gone through many surprising revolutions in the past (as Thomas Kuhn masterfully uncovered). The possibility that science may come to embrace fundamental natural properties unthinkable within the scope of the reigning materialistic paradigm cannot be discarded.