Remaking Our Many Worlds

Lisa H. Sideris

In the opening pages of Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s provocative and beautifully crafted book, she laments the “grim state” of the contemporary dialogue between the regimes of science and religion. Rubenstein’s work as a whole, like much of my own, aims at reconceiving this relationship. She hints, in these opening remarks, that attempts at “reconciliation” between a given thing called science and another given thing called religion have tended to produce the most lamentable relations of all, insofar as reconciliation typically entails “orthodox theology’s contorting itself,” in cringe-worthy fashion, “around any given scientific discovery so as to hold open an increasingly small space for itself without appearing too backward.”

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters. New York: Columbia University Press. 320 pp. $35.00

How are we to understand the relationship between something called science and something called religion in Pantheologies? Or is asking this question of this particular book something like a category mistake? And, more to the point, if we can identify what flies under the flag of these terms, what is the relationship between these entities—particularly “science”—and the process and product of ethical discernment in which Rubenstein engages in the latter portions of the book? Is there such a thing as a pantheological ethic?

On the question of whether we should read her as presenting her pluralistic form of pantheism as a religion that all ought to adopt, Rubenstein is clear: Pantheologies “aims for conceptual (re)construction rather than theological apologetics. … not to defend pantheological thinking against this or that rival, much less to win converts, but rather to see what such thinking might look like.” Rubenstein is decidedly not presenting this pantheological account as the new orthodoxy. Indeed, she is well aware that positing our vibrant, indeterminate, intra-constituted universe as “divine” may make no practical difference at all. Nevertheless, she urges readers to grant pantheology a hearing, to see where such a conceptual reconstruction might lead.

So, let us give this “ancient-modern heresy” a try and see what happens. As suggested by references to this heresy as “modern,” there are reasons—some stemming from our present planetary challenges–to try on this particular heresy, even if Rubenstein’s goal is not to defend it to the bitter end against the competition. Pantheology has not been conjured out of nothing: it has certain credentials, some of which might be called scientific. That is, the pantheological note seems the right one to strike, in light of a growing “assemblage” (perhaps a convergence?) comprised of animist cosmogonies, the Gaia hypothesis (especially as presented by Lynn Margulis), Amerindian perspectivism, and “now relativity and quantum mechanics.” Gaian perspectives, along with relativity and quantum thinking are, I take it, “modern” iterations of more ancient heresies. Taken together, they all seem to gesture toward something like pantheology.

In between (temporally speaking) the advent of ancient and modern heresies that point to the universe as an “un-totalizable” many rather than one, pernicious and persistent orthodoxies have been promulgated. Chief among these is the Cartesian mechanistic universe of brute, lifeless matter whose legacy persists today in “certain areas of particle physics, neo-Darwinism, and neuroscience,” Rubenstein writes. Mechanistic dualism has spawned a host of other oppressive bifurcations—spirit/matter, mind/body, male/female, and others.  Against these toxic dualisms has arisen the aforementioned assemblage of alternatives: Gaian multitudes, composed not of “a monistic whole but interdetermined multiplicities,” symbionts “all the way down” (in the words of Lynn Margulis) and “multiplicity all the way up.” Gaia can “neither be reduced to individuals nor gathered into a whole.” Similar appraisals of in- or inter-determinacy can be made regarding relativity and quantum theory, in at least some of their forms.

Is Rubenstein suggesting, then, that visions of multitudes and manyness have superseded mechanistic, dualistic, and oppressively monistic (all-is-one) configurations? To put it crassly, does “manyness” get it right? Is it true, or perhaps more true than mechanism, dualism, and monism? Along with William James, from whom she draws her distinction between monistic forms of pantheism and the pluralist or immanent form she embraces, Rubenstein appears at times to take a pragmatist approach to the question of whether there is really “one” or “many.” She writes:

“Just as one experimental apparatus will reveal light genuinely to be a bombardment of discrete particles and another will reveal it genuinely to be a smooth undulation of waves, one view of ‘all things’ will reveal ‘them’ to be one, and another will reveal ‘it’ to be many.”

The fact that different perspectives will reveal different things seems in itself to lend credibility to the “the many”, as she recognizes;  and it is with “the many”, she writes, where Rubenstein herself prefers “pragmatically to land,” even while she concedes that “ontologically” the situation “remains genuinely undecidable.”  After all, someone might yet detect an overarching Oneness lurking within the riot of manyness, to which some hypothetical pluralist might yet counter that the putative Oneness is itself revealed to be perspectival—“the product of yet another perspective.”

So, in keeping with such “genuine” undecidability, we cannot say, I assume, that the mechanistic clockwork universe has “turned out” to be wrong. Or can we?

To put the question differently: What recommends manyness to us, pragmatically? At times Rubenstein seems to be suggesting that there has been a certain accretion of testimonies pointing to a plural-pantheist account. Not a consensus perhaps—that might be too strong–but hints at an overlapping convergence, an assemblage of diverse witnesses, to use Rubenstein’s Latourian term. For example, the combined perspective of the diverse witnesses leads her to draw the following conclusions: Amerindian metaphysics “looks remarkably like the perspectivism” of Nicholas of Cusa who “demolished” Ptolemaic, geocentric, bounded orderliness, positing instead that “everything in the universe occupies the center of the universe from its own perspective.” Or as she also puts it, Amerindian perspectivism “amounts to” the “omnicentrism” of Nicholas of Cusa, “refracted through” the immanence of Giordano Bruno. Bruno, indigenous perspectivism, and Nicholas of Cusa, gesture collectively to the idea—an intriguingly Gaian-sounding proposition–that “the makers of the endless worlds are none other than the intra-active elements of those worlds themselves.”

But from what or whose perspective can it be said that the geocentric order was decisively “demolished,” as Rubenstein characterizes it? Or, put differently, on what ontological grounds can we render a judgment, as Rubenstein does, of Einstein “vindicating” Leibniz, or Neils Bohr as “shatter[ing] Newtonian clockwork”? What does it mean to say that the makers of these worlds are the intra-active elements? What can “are” mean in this context? I am not trying to be pedantic here. I am trying to understand the status of what seem to be scientific and para-scientific claims, alongside attendant protests (or concessions or perhaps celebrations) of genuine and abiding undecidability.

On the topic of disciplinary consensus, Rubenstein remarks that cosmology “cannot even pretend to get outside” of its own subject matter. Hence, we—we, all of us, I assume, not just professional cosmologists–are “irremediably inside” and “inexorably situated” within the universe that cosmology tries to see as a whole. The “manyness” of all things, she notes, seems only to proliferate and multiply with each investigation. Here again, Rubenstein likens this state of affairs to indigenous perspectivism in which a certain substance appears as “beer to a jaguar (who is human to herself) and blood to a human (who is peccary to a jaguar).”  In the same way, there is “no objectivity” behind the perspectivism of particle vs. wave, no answer to the question of what something “really is”, no “world” behind, beyond, above, or whatever, the “endless, situated acts of worlding”; no world in itself distinct from an indeterminate iteration of perspectives.

Fair enough. But if we faithfully follow Rubenstein’s talk of assemblages (and concomitant eschewal of “worlds”), what there is is some “likeness” between perspectives—at least from Rubenstein’s perspective. But from some other perspective—just as the putative overarching Oneness of the monist can be shown to be a mere product of one perspective—these apparent likenesses might well appear as un-likenesses.

All of this begins especially to matter when we contemplate the ethical implications of trying on pluralistic pantheism or pantheology. Because if our situation is indeed such that the cosmos may be “singular or multiple, connected or disconnected, or this multiverse or that, depending on the theoretical-material apparatus” deployed to “investigate-construct” it, then it strikes me that we need some other—pragmatic?—justification for embracing the many over the one. As Rubenstein makes clear, she believes that taking pantheism/pantheology seriously can disrupt toxic dualisms, owing to its “discomfiting refusal” of various Western divisions that “privilege light over darkness, male over female, and a carefully circumscribed ‘humanity’ over everything else.” This sounds like a worthy project indeed, even if pantheism amounts to one perspectival configuration among various ontologically undecidable options, none of them amenable to an un-perspectival adjudication.

Our cosmic, inexorable situatedness corresponds to (or, we might say, looks like) a “situational” style of ethics, Rubenstein suggests at times. She wants to wrest from pantheism something superior to the “moral relativism” to which it is often condemned (moral relativism functioning, it seems, like pantheism, as a limit-position marking the boundary of ethical respectability). Talk of relativism brings Einstein to mind, and Rubenstein argues that Einstein was never able to inhabit the pantheology suggested by his own cosmology. Neils Bohr, on the other hand, was far more willing to assume the mantle of all that indeterminacy and undecidability, and specifically, he was willing to embrace the notion that particles possess not properties but probabilities. Possible effects of any cause can be mapped, but “any single effect remains unknown—and unknowable—in advance.”

To return, then, to my line of inquiry: Does the same general account of unknowability apply to pantheistic/pantheological ethics? Bohr has often been depicted as an anti-realist, Rubenstein notes, but Karen Barad has cast Bohr’s “pragmatism” (note this term) as an “ontological principle.” He is not anti-realist, on this account, but an agential realist. To be clear, Rubenstein stresses, agential realism “does not mean there is no reality. It means that realities are constantly, differentially, relationally, and perspectivally generated.” Reality as relationally and multiply situated points not to everything being divine to every perceiver, nor to the sameness–the ontological flatness–that makes ethical and other distinctions impossible. Rather, where garden-variety relativism affirms innumerable ways of interpreting the same data, the perspectivalism attested to by indigenous and quantum cosmologies asserts that worlds “take shape differently depending on the points of view that intraagentially construct them.”

What, then, of ethics? Rubenstein contends that classical theism with its anthropomorphic lawgiver God is in far greater danger of engendering ethical quietism than are pantheistic positions she asks us to try on. Pantheism, unlike classical theism, supports a situational, contextual ethic that eschews static, “extra-cosmic,” a priori ethical delineations between good and evil. Maggots disgust humans but are ambrosia to vultures. Our ethical task as pantheists is to “own up” to situations—to account for a preference for “low-cost energy” over intact mountaintops. Pantheism, especially pantheism-as-pantheology, can increase our receptivity and responsibility to an everything that is neither anthropomorphic nor good, but a dynamic divine-within-all-things.

Rubenstein here endorses a condition of vulnerability—even hyper-empathy—made possible by wonder and awe decoupled from the human exceptionalism of classical theism. Moreover, the appeal of the pantheological perspective and its relinquishment of a single anthropomorphic god is that we can finally “stop wasting time on abstract justifications and set about trying to change the conditions that produce suffering in the first place.” And, further, we can “create rituals of mourning wherever change is not possible.” But at this point pantheology’s irreducible perspectivalism appears to undercut its own ethic. For are we not left, at best, with “probabilities”, where the relationship between causes and effects remain “unknown and unknowable”? Can we claim to know which conditions even “produce” suffering? (Perhaps DDT is good for me, after all.) And how can we differentiate situations where change is not possible from those where it is? (We seem to have landed squarely in Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer,” a petition to the deity to grant us wisdom to know the difference between what we can and cannot change). In this realm of the irremediably unknowable, how do we know when mourning, rather than “trying to change conditions” is the right response? And even if we can discern such distinctions, how can ethics—even avowedly, inexorably situational ethics—ever come to agreement on which situations are of which kind, if our condition is such that peccaries see flutes where I see coconuts, and I see blood where they see beer, and no one can say that it rained yesterday, but only that it “to me, it rained”?

To recap then: on one reading, a pantheological perspective appears a live option (so to speak) owing to its being, if not a consensus position, then at least a co-production and convergence of numerous thinkers and thoughts, some of whom are labeled “scientific.” That is, manyness comes to us scientifically credentialed.

As we travel this road further, however, we find Rubenstein affirming that manyness is ontologically undecidable, but pragmatically preferable. At this point it appears that what commends pantheology is the possibility that if we try it on, rather than laugh it off, something interesting (can we say good?) might happen. And yet, in trying it on, pantheology’s promise remains unfulfilled–not because it cannot make any distinctions, but because it can make nothing but distinctions. We are left eviscerated by our own hyper-empathy, bleeding along with the lacerated tree, dying with the birds, but unable to plot the path between cause and effect, or to discern where change can happen, or has happened. Perhaps this is a fitting portrait of our current condition, as we confront cascading effects of climate collapse and downward spiral of species death.

Such evisceration might well appear preferable to the anesthesia of human exceptionalism. But hyper-empathy may also engender new forms of transcendent escape or paralysis. Maybe, then, we are left not so much with ethics per se, but with the open wound that is wonder. For as Rubenstein has elsewhere argued: just as a wound ceases to be itself when it heals, so wonder (Wunde: cut, gash) is only wonder while it remains open. In this shared condition of open-woundedness and entangled empathy, we might gather together to remake our (many) worlds as best we can.

Lisa H. Sideris is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University with research interests in the intersection of science, religion, and environmental thought and ethics. Her most recent book is Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World (University of California Press, 2017). In July 2021 she joins the Environmental Studies Program at University of California, Santa Barbara. Twitter: @lhsideris