Editor’s note: We are pleased to host this guest essay by Julian Betkowski, who will be presenting on “Polytheism and American Life” at the upcoming Polytheist Leadership Conference. Readers are invited to approach this essay as part of ongoing conversations about the philosophical implications of Polytheism, which (here at Patheos Pagan) have recently included Gus diZerega’s “Polytheism, Emergence, and the One” and Christopher Scott Thompson’s “Polytheistic Monism.”
Certainly the mind-body problem is difficult enough that we should be suspicious of attempts to solve it with the concepts and methods developed to account for very different kinds of things. (Nagel, 2001, p. 42)
Thomas Nagel is a humanist philosopher specializing in Theory of Mind. His work has not been without controversy, yet he has substantially affected the ongoing conversations regarding consciousness and the experience of being. In his seminal 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” he explores the difficulties involved in understanding the experiences of different beings, and the problems that arise when attempt to reduce that experience to some other underlying feature. Nagel explains:
I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (even though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat know what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life. (p. 438)
Whatever surface characteristics we share with bats, their way of being in the world is fundamentally different from our own. Their structural, physiological layout informs their relationship with the world in a way that is quite distinct and dissimilar to our own. Yet, it would seem strange to assert that because of these differences that they do not experience. Bats remain relatable enough that we are still capable of recognizing them as individual loci of experience. Nagel continues:
But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. (p. 438)
If we are to consider the experience of a bat, we are faced with a powerful dilemma, while we can understand the bat as an experiencing being, are we really capable of understanding the contents or substance of that experience? The sensory perceptions of the bat, it appears, must be structured in a way that is quite removed from our own perceptual experience. Of course, we are capable of imaginatively reconstructing from our own experiences an idea of what it may be like to experience as we suspect a bat experiences, however:
In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. (p. 439)
Our imagination is limited in that it can only insert our own point of view, modified, perhaps, through various permutations and expectations or assumptions about the experience of bats, into a hypothetical situation the resemblance of which to the actual situation of a bat remains unknown. The question is not, “What is it like to imagine to be a bat?” but “What is it like to be a bat?” There remains an essential bat experience that is distinct from any imaginary state of battiness. Our own imagination is limited by our experiences, and the materials that it has at hand to manipulate. Whatever permutations we may apply to our own sensory experiences, they will not necessarily tell us anything about the experience of a bat itself. If we are to understand the experience of bats, then:
The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if only we knew what they were like. (p. 439)
We are only able to get so close to an understanding of the experience of bats before our own imaginative faculties fail us. In order to understand the being of a bat, we would need access to the experiences of a bat, and that data appears to be beyond our grasp.
Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth proposition expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them. (p. 441)
The existence and apparent experiencing of bats informs us that there is, at least, some way of being in the world that remains beyond our comprehension. The experiences of a bat cannot be reduced to scientific data about its sensory apparatus or other details of its embodiment, nor can they be directly equated with our imaginative attempts to insert our own point of views into the experience of a bat. However incisive the nature of our inquisition into the experience of a bat, the bat remains forever distinct and dissimilar: its experience remains utterly its own.
In a more recent work, Mind and Cosmos (2012), Thomas Nagel further explores the dangers of reductionistic approaches to experience and consciousness. Throughout the work, he explores the general thesis that:
Our existence presents us with the fact that somehow the world generates conscious beings capable of recognizing reasons for action and belief, distinguishing some necessary truths, and evaluating the evidence for alternative hypotheses about the natural order. We don’t know how this happens, but it is hard not to believe that there is some explanation of a systematic kind—an expanded account of the order of the world. (p. 31)
He consistently argues that consciousness cannot be accounted for by traditional physiological reduction, and that regardless of the physiological connections, they tell us nothing about the actual experience of conscious being. We are embedded in and formed out of the material of the world, and so therefore our understanding of the world itself must be capable of accounting for the undeniable presence of our consciousnesses and experiences. Consciousness and experience can be read as necessary qualities of the world itself. Further, even if the exact correlation between the physical state and mental state were uncovered, it would remain insufficient to account for the actual experience itself, without some further explanatory framework:
Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect. (p. 45)
Indeed, while it is true that we are all formed out of the same general matter as everything else in the universe, this does not tell us anything about the subjective qualities experienced and contained within the various specialized forms which that matter manifests. Any underlying similarity, in fact, tells us shockingly little about the manifold differences and variations that abound in the world around us, nor does it inform us as to the discrete experiences and subjective qualities of diverse beings. Despite our several similarities to bats, the direct knowledge of what it is like to be a bat remains beyond us.
While our consciousnesses and experiences undoubtedly occur within the world, and overlap with a great deal of other features and qualities of that world, we remain ever and always unique and distinct. There are features and elements of the world that remain beyond our grasp simply as a result as our nature as humans, and, it seems, that the inverse is also true, that there are qualities and understandings of human being that are only accessible through human experience. As Nagel observes in his 1974 essay:
Members of radically different species may both understand the same physical events in objective terms, and this does not require that they understand the phenomenal forms in which those events appear to the sense of member of the other species. Thus it is a condition of their referring to a common reality that their more particular viewpoints are not part of the common reality that they both apprehend. (p. 445) [emphasis mine]
So enters Polytheism. Polytheism seeks to come to terms with a world full of experiencing beings, a world full of beings who are so unique and different that we have no expectation of being able to fully comprehend them or their viewpoints. Polytheism emerges from an innate respect for the uniqueness and profundity of individual experience, and recognizes its fundamental irreducibility not merely to its bare material substrate, but to other experiences in general. Polytheism treats all experience as unique and precious, and deserving of appreciation. Experiencing beings cannot be automatically equated with each other, nor can their experiences be homogenized into one comprehensible whole. There may even, in fact, be discrete elements the experiences of discrete beings that are utterly incompatible, and which cannot be reconciled. In a universe full of experiences, nothing can be reduced to one.
More simply stated, from the viewpoint of Polytheism, any potential oneness of the universe is simply not its most important defining feature, nor does that potential oneness necessarily reveal anything about the lived experience of the various beings that pervade the universe. From the view of Polytheism, it is important to allow experience to maintain its primacy, to speak for itself. The mystery of Polytheism springs from the great expanse of secret experience, from experience that is beyond us, and from our interaction with unique and idiosyncratic beings whose experience we recognize as special and profound. Polytheism is not just about encountering the world, but about the world encountering us, and the richness of that interplay and interaction. Polytheism does not seek to explain the world according to any single diagram, but remains open-ended and expansive, receptive to possibilities and uncertainties. Indeed, from this perspective, monism seems to entail a persistent disregard for experience, and shifts the focus away from the multitudinous variation of the universe toward some projected unity.
In an analyses of the flaws of the Perennial Philosophy, a form of monism popular in many forms of contemporary spiritualities, Transpersonal Theorist Jorge Ferrer employs the following story to illustrate the difficulties inherent in focusing only on similarities:
The nature of this problem can be illustrated by the popular story of the woman who, observing her neighbor entering into an altered state of consciousness three consecutive days first with rum and water, then through fast breathing and water, and finally with nitrous oxide with water, concludes that the reason for his bizarre behaviors was the ingestion of water. The moral of the story, of course, is that what is essential or more explanatory in a set of phenomena is not necessarily what is most obviously common to them. (2002, p. 91)
The similarities that run through the universe simply may not be the most important defining characteristics of the universe, or the beings that compose it. Ferrer continues:
Although it is certainly possible to find parallels across religious traditions, the key to the spiritually transforming power of a given tradition may lie in its own distinctive practices and understandings. (2002, p. 91-92)
If we are going to remain open to experience, then we need to be aware of the way that totalizing claims impact and affect our ability to understand and allow for the experiences of others. Even the assertion that everything is one potentially undermines and discounts the understandings of others whose experiences may lead them to differing conclusions. Polytheism seeks to avoid such claims simply by acknowledging the apparent diversity and variation not only in the world around us, but also in the real, lived experiences both of ourselves and other multitudinous others surrounding us.
I assert that we make a profound mistake when we attempt to apologize all points of view, all traditions, and all experiences. The profundity and richness of the universe is a result of the majesty and breadth of our differences. Polytheism seeks to embrace those differences exactly as they are presented to us. This is not to say, however, that under the aegis of Polytheism, anything goes, simply that Polytheism is more concerned with discrete experience, individual identity, and difference than with providing a single, all encompassing, explanatory model of the entire universe. Indeed, such models tend to ignore significant details that may, in fact, dramatically affect and inform our experience and understanding of the world around us.
I suspect that most Monists do not understand Monism as reductionistic, however it has been my intention to demonstrate how Monism can be read as a kind of reduction, particularly with regards to experience. Even if it is understood as structurally compatible with Polytheism, Monism still undermines and contradicts the general ethos of polytheistic thought. To those who would then assert that I am missing the point of Monism, I can only reply, then, that they are missing the point of Polytheism. It is not that I do not understand their position, simply that I do not find it very interesting or useful.
Ferrer, J. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Nagel, T. (2012). Mind & cosmos: Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat?. The Philosophical Review. 83,4, p. 435-450