Out the Door
The International Hobo Returns

A Deck of Realities

Tarot A Hindu physicist in Delhi believes in a transcendent divine force, but adopts a materialist stance for his latest research paper. A Christian legislator in Rio de Janeiro has theist beliefs when praying, but a Marxist stance in the political arena. A Humanist in New York has Neo-Darwinist beliefs, but derives an ethical system from pantheism. We are used to considering people’s belief systems as belonging to a single tradition, but on examination we uncover a rich tapestry of co-existing metaphysical viewpoints.

We have no control over how we come into this world, and wherever we are born, in whichever culture and to whichever family, we acquire certain beliefs which combine to define the reality in which we live. It may be the case that there is an external reality that is the same for all of us, but we each experience this world through our own senses and beliefs. It is as if we are each dealt a hand of cards which define our personal reality – we can change the individual cards in this hand, and we can hold cards that we do not use, but what we cannot do is cast our hand aside and refuse to play.

I have already shown how Wittgenstein’s notion of a language game reveals that our private vocabulary, our idiolects, can change our personal (emic) realities (contrasted to the external, etic reality). Let us consider this in the context of a framing worldview, specifically in relation to the word ‘God’. To an individual who cannot find a way to make this word meaningful, there can be no God, nor evidence for God – one cannot find support for a word that has no personal meaning. Conversely, to an individual for whom the word God is meaningful, the notion of evidence for God may equally be meaningless as everything that can be experienced may be considered evidence of God. Neither situation constitutes a genuine ontological statement about God – we cannot test metaphysical claims, but this is categorically not the same as claiming that metaphysics are meaningless or inherently false – they are simply outside the domain of testable knowledge.

Neither is the meaning of the word ‘god’ to be taken for granted. We could be referring to God in the theistic sense of a personal God, or we could be referring to a more transcendent notion of God such as the Hindu idea of Brahman – an infinite, unchanging reality beyond the reality of our existence. Or we could be talking about gods in the sense of, say, the Greek pantheon, who are in some sense lesser beings than that which we refer to as Allah or Jehovah. For clarity, I shall call a transcendent deity the Divine (and transcendent non-deities the Absolute), a personal deity God with a capital G, and lesser deities gods with a lower case g. And as an added complication, some systems (especially Hindu beliefs) incorporate all three levels in parallel. 

Let us now look at a few of the cards from the first suit in our deck of realities.


The Numinous Experience 

The word ‘numinous’, coined by Rudolf Otto, describes an experience of the wholly Other – something external to the individual, and generally the tremendous and mysterious power of this Other is emphasised in numinous experiences. Ninian Smart, who analysed religious and secular worldviews in purely phenomenological terms, considers the numinous experience to be one of the central religious experiences, and relates it to devotional worship (which he calls bakhti – a Hindu term) and hence to theistic systems and their relatives.

Theism refers to belief in a personal God, that is, a God who is concerned with our actions and (perhaps) takes an active role in the world, albeit unseen and perhaps beyond mortal comprehension. Theistic beliefs declare their own systems of ethics as having originated from this personal God. We are perhaps more familiar with the Theism card in our deck than any other, because the Abrahamic faiths (the People of the Book, as the Muslims say) are traditionally interpreted through this view. But this is by no means a given, as we will see. 

Dualism in the Hindu style does not focus on the personal aspect of the divine, but rather on the different nature of the Divine from the Soul – the distinction of atman from Brahman. From the Divine springs dharma, a concept central to Eastern religions (indeed, the Dharmic faiths – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism – are often contrasted with the Abrahamic faiths), and dharma provides a system of ethics; it’s very name means ‘proper conduct’ or ‘right way of living’. Unlike the law-based approach of the People of the Book, the focus of dharma is on self-realisation, to which other practices are secondary.

Deism describes a Christian approach which is closer to Hindu dualism than conventional theism; the focus here is on God as the Divine, and the personal God of theism is either rejected, or absent. Popular among Christian intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries, deism plays down the importance of revealed religion, and instead sees belief in the Divine as inherently observable in the world. In essence, God creates the universe and sets it running, but then plays no further part in its operation. Ethics still follow from Christian writings, although the justifications and meaning of scripture are vastly different from theistic approaches. One could be forgiven for mistaking deism as a forerunner to modern secular atheistic views, but the numinous experience remains firmly rooted here. 

Transtheism shows another variation, taking the Divine of deism or Hindu dualism, but having a personal God emanate from this. Johannes Eckhart’s interpretation of Christianity with a deitas (the Divine) and a deus (God) shows this form, and we can find a similar system in Islam with ibn ’Arabi. Here, ethics are inherited as in theism or deism, but the metaphysical framework is more complex.

Transpolytheism connects the same idea to lesser gods, and is a common idea in Hindu belief systems – the gods are seen as manifestations of a greater Divine force. Indeed, it is generally a mistake to consider Hindu beliefs to be polytheistic (in the sense this word is usually employed). There is always the transcendent Divine behind or beyond the gods. Indeed, some Hindu mystics would not recognise the lesser gods as anything but metaphors expressing some deeper divine message. As before, dharma provides a system of ethics, and this follows from the Divine. 

The numinous experience is associated with theism and related views, but the belief systems which centre upon this idea of a mysterious and powerful Other also lead to more mystical views – all the Abrahamic faiths have their mystical traditions. Here, we move into the second suit of our deck. 


The Panenhenic Experience

Robert Zaehner coined this term to describe an ‘all in one’ experience of dramatic unity with nature or with the cosmos. Ninian Smart (to whom I am indebted for much of this piece) seems uncertain how to use the term confidently within his own system, so I am choosing to apply the term to describe mystical experiences of union with the Other (as distinct from the contemplative experience of inner unity, or union with the inner non-other) rather than in the sense of nature spirituality which is probably closer to Zaehner’s original intent. 

Monism can describe many different beliefs. In Sufi Islam, reality emanates from the Divine (from Allah), and every instant the universe returns to the Divine and is refreshed. In this instance, a mystical element has emerged from a numinous beginning, and an ethical system can be inherited from that root.

Non-dualism is another form of monism, for example, the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta, which sees the ordinary perspective of the world of multiple things as an illusion. Everything is one – the Divine, God, gods and mortals are all expressions of the same thing. Here, dharma is inherent to all things (since all things are one), and so ethics are a kind of Absolute that partners with the Divine.

Pantheism describes a similar kind of situation – everything is of an all encompassing, immanent Divine, or alternatively God and the universe (or nature) are equivalent. Hinduism is the oldest pantheistic system (although Hindu beliefs are too diverse to be considered under one single framework), although all of the Abrahamic faiths develop this in some form; Spinoza for Judaism, for instance, or Sufi approaches to Islam. Ethics may be inherited from earlier doctrines where applicable, or may evolve directly from the pantheist perspective – our interconnectedness makes any harm done to others undesirable as it is in effect harm done to ourselves. 

Naturalistic Pantheism is an atheistic variation, seeing the universe as non-conscious and non-sentient, but still a meaningful focus for spiritual fulfilment. Here, the universe is divine and the Earth is sacred, and this provides some basis from which ethics may be derived.

Taoism is too complicated a subject to cover briefly, but expresses similar themes and has been connected to the panenhenic experience. Nature is governed by the way (or Tao) – it is perfectly harmonious (where man has not interfered with it), non-action is preferred, but is not the same as inaction – rather, an idea similar to dharma is at work. The Tao is Absolute and eternal, and resisting it is self-defeating: as Lao Tsu noted one cannot use force to conquer the universe, for this will just cause resistance. One should ‘just do what needs to be done.’ 

By this point, we are a long way from the numinous experience of theism, and into a new and different (yet complimentary) perspective. Our third suit takes the mystical experience of the panenhenic, and turns it inwards.


The Contemplative Experience 

Smart views religious experience as existing chiefly in two polar modes – the numinous experience of the Other, and the contemplative experience or inner unity, where the distinction between subject and object vanishes. Other experiences, such as the panenhenic, are admitted, but Smart’s model is chiefly focussed on these two poles. Furthermore, Smart sees how traditions that begin in the numinous (e.g. Abrahamic faiths, and older faiths such as Zoroastrianism) develop a contemplative element (e.g. in Sufi and Christian mysticism), while religions that begin in the contemplative eventually develop a devotional element.

Non-theism is a concept that relates to the contemplative experience viewed in isolation. It is not necessarily belief in the non-existence of gods (as with atheism), but rather that gods or God are not the relevant matter. In particular, gods are seen as irrelevant to non-theistic beliefs. Rather, dhyāna, which is a type or aspect of meditation, is central to the practices of non-theistic systems. In short: the focus is inward rather than outward to the transcendent. Non-theistic systems tend to still posit an Absolute of some kind, they just do not see this Absolute as sentient in any manner, and ethics are derived from this Absolute (as we have already seen in the example of dharma). 

Hindu dhyāna is a means of gaining self-knowledge, and thus furthering dharma. The ultimate goal is to separate maya (illusion) from reality. An inner unity is sought that will allow the practitioner to achieve the ultimate state of moksha or liberation. Ethics generally relate to the concept of dharma, as in the numinous cases we have examined before. Few Hindu systems are non-theistic, but the term is applied to such a diverse range of beliefs it cannot be excluded.

Theravada (Buddhist) Jhāna is a meditative practice with a similar role: inner contemplation is seen as being conducive to detatchment with the ultimate goal of liberation, or nirvana – the extinguishing of self (but categorically not the annihilation of self). From this quest for liberation, an ethical system emerges, but Theravada is strictly non-theistic. 

Mahayana (Buddhist) dhyāna shows another variation on the same theme, but forms a lesser role, being only part of the practice of the Great Vehicle (mahayana), which is the other major branch of Buddhism along with Theravada.  However, in Mahayana, the theme of bakhti (devotional worship) re-emerges, albeit without gods, per se. The contemplative and numinous experiences have rejoined each other once again, but here beginning in the contemplative and ending in the numinous.

Ch’an/Zen Buddhism completes the picture, as in these variations on the meditative theme, the panenhenic experience becomes joined to the contemplative experience. The experience of inner unity and the experience of union with the Other become so closely related that there is no distinction between the two. Indeed, the notion of subject and object are entirely obliterated.

From these non-theistic positions where the notion of God or gods is secondary or misleading, we move into our final suit.


Here, the religious experiences of the numinous, panenhenic or contemplative state of inner unity are rejected or absent. These worldviews are not considered religions by their practitioners, although they often contain metaphysical and ethical elements which can make them seem religious to an observer (in the case of the most vehement adherents, intolerance is just as likely to occur as from an entrenched religious position). But these cards may exist in the same hand as the cards from other suits, and the human capacity to take disparate beliefs and unify them into a coherent system remains breathtaking.

Materialism is not a worldview people identify for themselves so much as a designation philosophers have applied to those worldviews which consider the material universe to be paramount – that is, existence is seen as being wholly or chiefly matter. I personally find this view slightly strange: given the extent to which the Copernican and Darwinian views toppled the notion of man’s position at the centre of the universe, why presume that all that exists can be detected by man’s senses and instruments? But this is a minor point, and in any case does not affect the value of materialism in underpinning the modern skeptical view and, more critically, providing engineering practices with a firm foundation. Ethics are absent, unless focus on the testable can be seen as a kind of partial ethical view.

Marxism is a particular form of materialism in which a specific system of metaphysics and ethics are derived from a central narrative which expresses history in terms of class warfare. Parallels can be made with how many religions draw their metaphysics and ethics from specific narratives. Smart suggests that the failure of Marxism in Soviet Russia came from ethical flaws within Marxism – the class warfare metaphor conflicted with basic human rights when used as a the justification for totalitarianism, and with traditional societal values when opposing religion. But as I have noted previously, there are signs of a new softening attitude to religion among modern Marxists. 

Nationalism is a similar approach in some respects, but here the prime factor is the importance of the nation state to which one claims identity. This card can exist in the hand alongside those of other suits, although certain tensions result – consider the collision of Christianity and nationalism in the United States: to an outside observer, it sometimes seems that the nation is worshipped more fervently than God. Ethics derived from nationalism concern solely the role of the individual with respect to the state.

Sportism is a neologism I am coining to describe the non-religious experience of the devotee of a particular sporting team. It is similar to nationalism in terms of the issues of identity, but no ethical element emerges. One wishes one’s team to be victorious, but this does not provide the basis for a system of ethics. As secular rituals have gradually supplanted religious rituals in Western society, sport can become an incomplete substitute for religion. 

Nihilism denotes a rejection of ethics. Life has no truth, and no action can be known to be preferable to any other. I consider this position to be rather pointless, and equivalent to giving up on any hope of resolving issues in religious metaphysics or secular ethics. Since I consider both of these problems to be readily solvable, nihilism seems to me a lazy escape for the depressive or rebellious. I prefer Michael Novak’s view that the experience of nothingness can be the beginning of ethical enquiry, instead of transforming this experience into an ideology, and rejecting ethics entirely.

Neo-Darwinism began as a scientific theory (the modern evolutionary synthesis) but has recently developed into something of a nonreligion, taking the gene-centric view as the highest authority for understanding reality, and considering other approaches (e.g. religion) as inherently inferior. A parallel can be made with the way Marxism emerges from its central narrative, except here the ‘narrative’ is couched in abstract scientific terms such as genes and fitness. Although this belief does not lead to an ethical system, a common misunderstanding of its doctrine is to believe that the “selfish gene” metaphor somehow justifies or excuses self-centred behaviour, or to believe that procreation is the highest goal – confusions that result from applying an interpretive scientific model to an ethical context. It is interesting to compare Neo-Darwinism’s encroachment on metaphysical or ethical subjects with the Creation Scientists’ imposition of metaphysics onto science: both can be seen as category errors. 

Multiversism is a neologism I am coining to describe the belief system that results from the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics. We have already seen that there are other quantum interpretations that function as nonreligions, but the widespread popularity of multiversism marks it out for special attention. The basic idea is that all possible quantum states ‘exist’ in other universes – a metaphysical belief which renders quantum theory easier for certain scientists to digest, but which cannot lead to an ethical system. However, it may lead to a variation on the panenhenic experience – a few multiversists report an experience of instantaneous awareness of all other quantum universes that seems to constitute an oxymoronic instance of a secular ‘religious’ experience. 

Modal Realism is a term coined by the philosopher David Lewis to express his belief that the possible worlds of modal logic were as real as our own universe. At first, this seems to be a modified version of multiversism, but in the Many Worlds quantum interpretation the laws of physics (and presumptions of metaphysics) are generally assumed to be the same in each universe. In Modal Realism, all possible worlds are considered viable – the variation of these possible worlds is thus unlimited. At this point, we cannot exclude gods on materialist grounds: all possible worlds exist, hence it is not a question of whether God exists – this is most certainly the case in some possible worlds – it is only a question of whether or not our reality contains such an entity.


With this, our brief journey through a handful of cards from the deck of realities is complete, and we have come full circle.


Shuffling the Deck

We do not choose the cards that are dealt to us, although we can to some extent alter the hand with which we play the game of reality. Each of us, in our own way, has the power to discard those cards we do not wish to play with, or to pick up cards that will help us play the game. Attempts to evaluate individual cards as True or False are entirely misleading, for such statements cannot be validated meaningfully – all the cards are there to be played with, it is only how we play with them that matters. We must find those cards that suit how we wish to play the game, and accept that other hands are not only possible, but inevitable. This may be difficult, but the rewards are more than commensurate to the challenge.


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It seems that the ultimate ontology you're implying with this article is a non-deterministic game we all cannot help but play.

Two things occur to me about the above. Firstly, a specific point about the relationship of ethics to a founding religious system - it can be a vexed question. In some strands of both Mahayana Buddhism and Hindu Tantra, you can attain liberation by pursuing an antinomian 'left-hand' path - where you progress by breaking rules. I read a hilarious account of some westerner trying to find a left-hand tantric master, ending up getting drunk and eating chicken in a Delhi hotel with a local woman. Something similar existed in some of the sufi schools, and also I think in the 'holy fools' in Russia. Does antinomianism stalk all ethical systems like a shadow?

My second point is - does the deck of cards refer to a reality exterior to it - or are these cards all we have, endlessly referring back to themselves? The second view would constitute postmodernism. Or should your piece be read as psychological observation - that culture and upbringing endows us with a particular deck of cards, and whatever happens we are unlikely ever to get very far from the contents of this deck - effectively, we just shuffle the cards a bit?

Good luck in America.

One other things occurs to me, that might be worth discussing - Don Cupitt at one point proposed a deliberately piecemeal ethics, detached from any metaphysical foundation.

Patrick: I would indeed characterise existence in this way. :)

Theo: since antinomianism is an accusation levelled by certain adherents against certain others, I question that it is an ethical issue per se rather than a question of doctrinal enforcement - but this proceeds from my assumption that ethics only exist at the level of an individual, that is, that laws and ethics are seperate issues. I'm certain we'll explore this point in the ethics campaign.

As for piecemeal ethics detached from any metaphysical foundation, I believe it is highly desirable for us to be exploring this area. As Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests, practice is key - we do not have to agree on the metaphysical justifications if we can agree on the ethical content.

Finally, on the question of how to interpret this piece (as psychology, as post-modernism...) I must necessarily fall silent. But clearly, the contents of the deck are not static, as new cards are added every century.

Best wishes!

Chris: Excellent metaphor!

It is as if we are each dealt a hand of cards which define our personal reality – we can change the individual cards in this hand, and we can hold cards that we do not use, but what we cannot do is cast our hand aside and refuse to play.

One small comment.

What about "acceleration"? That is: "change of the change"?

Using terms inspired by physics (as the analogy given).
We have:

1. "state" (static, eg zero velocity)
2. "state of change" (constant change, e.g constant velocity)
3. "change of state" (change of the change, eg acceleration)

If one uses (mathematical) logic-inspired terminology, this is like "second-order logic".

Hi Nikos,
Try as a I might I cannot make 'acceleration' work in the original metaphor's fictional world. I am probably missing something that gives your comment its sense...


PS: apologies for slow response times... things are hectic right now!

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