Tag Archives: panentheism

Panentheism and Ontological Containment

I’m told there has been some discussion of my recent pantheism post on Michael Sudduth’s Facebook page. Since I ditched my Facebook account a couple of years ago, and Michael’s page isn’t publicly accessible, I can’t interact directly with that discussion. However, a mutual friend was thoughtful enough to send me a copy of his own critical comments, which I reproduce here:

I think James’ note is too quick. For what sort of ontological containment is at play here? Clearly many sorts of containment, such that A contains B, don’t support the inference that P(A) if P(B) for just any property P. Consider mereological containment, where A contains B just if B is a part (or perhaps proper part) of A. A very large clock tower — Big Ben, say — has many proper parts less than 1′ tall. But it doesn’t begin to follow that the same goes for Big Ben; it doesn’t follow that Big Ben, too, is less than 1′ tall.

Much the same goes for spatial containment, which James’ himself seems to dismiss as a relevent sort of ontological containment. My carton of non-fat milk and the refrigerator in which it’s contained have, among other things, very different dimensions and construction. Further, the milk can have soured and yet it still be false that the same goes for the refrigerator.

Perhaps, then, the relevant notion of ontological containment is that displayed by sets and their members. But this, too, won’t do, for of course while 7 is prime, then same can’t properly be said of (e.g.) the set of natural numbers of which 7 is a member.

Of course there’s much more to be said here. No doubt there are other notions of ontological containment which will support the general inference above, as well as (otherwise) faithfully capturing what the panentheist means to assert. Or perhaps we need to look more closely into relevant types of property; perhaps there are properties of some type, such that any property of that type does apply to the container if they apply to the contained item.

These are useful comments that raise some important issues. Here are some thoughts in response:

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Why I Am Not a Panentheist

Michael Sudduth, a philosopher of religion at San Francisco State University, has caused quite a stir by announcing his departure from orthodox Christianity and conversion to Gaudiya Vaishnavism (a form of Vaishnava Vedanta Hinduism). Having known Michael for over a decade, and having had many profitable philosophical discussions with him, I was extremely grieved to read this announcement, although it didn’t come completely out of the blue. Some mutual friends had informed me of his increasing interest in Eastern religion and his gradually distancing himself from biblical Christianity. We had an email exchange last year when I raised some concerns (my last email, it turns out, was sent several days before his “profoundly moving religious experience of Krishna”) but it quickly fizzled out because Michael wasn’t ready at that time to set out his views in detail.

I’m not going to comment on his conversion testimony or on the complex personal experiences and circumstances that led to it (only some of which are mentioned in that testimony). However, I do want to remark on one particular statement:

Consequently, I now accept a panentheistic metaphysics in which the universe and human souls are, to put it roughly, in the being of God.

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