Idols and the Death of God

Idols and the Death of God

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1. Idols

1.1 Nietzsche

When Nietzsche’s madman proclaimed the death of God in 1887, he correctly identified the perpetrators: “We have killed him, you and I”. However, an examination of the crime scene reveals that Nietzsche misidentified the victim; it was not God, but an image of God that we created and then killed. The death of God is a remarkable illusion that has had pervasive negative consequences. This paper will explore how the illusion occurred and how it can be dispelled.

The illusory death of God is a recent manifestation of an ancient problem, the relationship between reality and how we know reality. It is generally assumed that we know and relate to reality primarily through concepts, and that other ways of knowing and relating (intuition and procedural memory, for example) are either too vague and imprecise to be useful, and/or are inherently private and difficult to communicate. By contrast, the concepts of modern science are immensely useful, because they are clear enough to be easily communicated, and precise enough to be tested and corrected.


However, the assumption that we know and relate to reality primarily through concepts is both incorrect and also the source of serious confusion. The supposed death of God is related to the scientific revolution and the development of a materialistic view of reality that leaves no room for God. Science is a conceptual system, a way of thinking; and the “god” that seems to be excluded from this system is also a concept. Basically, our concept of science excludes our concept of God; we have created two conflicting images of reality, and concluded that the conflict says something fundamental about reality.

A new approach, the Philosophy of the Implicit (Gendlin, 1997a, 1997b), offers a resolution of such apparent conflicts. A closer examination of concepts and how they function shows that there is an implicit common ground shared by all conceptual systems. By understanding how this common ground is related to conceptual thinking, we can dispel the illusion of a conflict between science and God, while advancing both our understanding of the world and of spiritual experience.

We will begin by examining the basic illusion behind the death of God.

1.2 Copernicus – History and Conceptual Models

In recent years, there have been many attempts to develop a scientific understanding of spiritual experience, consciousness, and free will, and we have no shortage of theories in any of these areas. But what is crucial here, and not always well understood, is that different kinds of concepts are possible, resulting in different kinds of theories; and that current concepts and theories tend to be of just one kind. This can be difficult to see because we often assume implicitly that reality is limited to what we can think with the concepts available to us. This assumption creates a kind of illusion in which we see an incoherent concept or an erroneous concept, instead of a different kind of concept. This illusion is central to the apparent conflict between science and religion; but it is difficult to point out, precisely because it seems to be real. We can see it more easily if we look at an earlier example of this illusion, one that affected other people but no longer affects us. The Copernican revolution offers one such example.

Today, the theories of Copernicus and Ptolemy both seem perfectly and equally clear: either the earth moves around the sun, or the sun moves around the earth. But in 1550, the idea of an earth that moves seemed incoherent to many people, simply because they couldn’t think it with the concepts they had available.

For most medieval people the universe was an organic whole in which everything had a natural place, with earth at the center. This was far more than a religious tenet; it was intrinsic to their worldview. Medieval physics was based on four elements, earth and water that wanted to go “down,” fire and air that wanted to go “up.” Earth was a place of change and decay because the intermingled elements were all trying to separate from each other and find their appropriate places in the divine order. Everything in heaven had found its place, so there was no change in heaven except for the circular motion which was inherent to celestial bodies. Medicine was organized around the four humors, which were related to the four elements. People worshipped in churches with tall steeples reaching from an imperfect earth toward a perfect heaven; and 50 years after Copernicus, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra would cry out to the dead Mark Antony:

Husband, I come!…
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.

Thus when Copernicus announced from his deathbed in 1543 that the earth moves around the sun, he was greeted not so much with disagreement as incomprehension. Many of the best and brightest minds in Europe thought the idea was incoherent, a contradiction in terms. We can hear this in the exasperation of the eminent astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), who asked,

What need is there without any justification to imagine the earth, a dark, dense and inert mass, to be a heavenly body undergoing even more numerous revolutions than the others, that is to say, subject to a triple motion, in negation not only of all physical truth, but also of the authority of the Holy Scripture which ought to be paramount (Rosen, 1958, p. 327; cf. de Santillana, 1962, pp. 5, 38).

In a textbook published in 1549, Luther’s principal assistant, Philipp Melanchthon, commented on the absurdity of thinking that the earth, which isn’t a heavenly body, could move as if it were; while the sun, which is a heavenly body, doesn’t move, even though all the other heavenly bodies do move (Kearney, 1971, p. 101; Rosen, 1958, p. 324). Fifty years after Copernicus died, the French philosopher Jean Bodin (1530–1596) observed correctly that that if Copernicus was right, “all the foundations of physics must crumble,” adding,

No one who is in his right mind or who has had the slightest training in the physical sciences will ever believe that the dense and solid earth with its heaviness and weight simultaneously moves up and down, about its own center, and around the sun…. (Rosen, 1958, p. 319)

Galileo tried to use the evidence of his telescope to win fellow astronomers over to Copernicus, but many of them refused to even look at the evidence; they knew in advance that if the telescope seemed to support Copernicus, it meant there was something wrong with the telescope. In 1610 a frustrated Galileo wrote to Johannes Kepler,

…what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry? (de Santillana, 1962, p. 9)

1.3 Bacon: Idols of the mind

It is easy to smile at people who were so baffled by the simple concept of an earth that moves around the sun, a concept that for us is both obvious and true. However, their bafflement is an instance of something very common, perhaps universal: the difficulty inherent in breaking out of an old and comfortable way of thinking. It is easy enough to discuss and evaluate particular theories; but it is difficult even to see, let alone evaluate, the overarching conceptual models within which particular theories are developed (Kuhn, 1970). Understanding this difficulty is central to understanding the apparent conflict between science and religion.

One of Galileo’s contemporaries studied this phenomenon closely. Francis Bacon was an early proponent of the scientific revolution, and also an astute observer of human nature. He was therefore in a unique position to understand what advances and what hinders scientific progress. In his New Organon,1 Bacon described the problem in terms of idols, meaning illusions or phantoms of the mind.

Bacon found that some idols are basic and unavoidable; for example, “There is no easy way of teaching or explaining what we are introducing; because anything new will still be understood by analogy with the old” (1620/2000, 1: 34). No matter how open-minded we are, and no matter how well we understand this particular idol, it will still be difficult to grasp a new kind of thinking, since we can only begin with concepts and terms which the new thinking rejects.

Others idols can be avoided, but only with difficulty because they are very seductive. These include particular kinds of thinking that do not “steal into the understanding secretly, but are plainly impressed and received into the mind from the playbooks of philosophical systems” (Bacon, 1620/2004, 1: 61). Everything we know conceptually is necessarily formulated with the kind of concepts we already have, and therefore seems to confirm and validate that kind of thinking; while anything that doesn’t fit our current concepts tends to seem inherently imprecise or irrational.

According to Bacon, one way to free ourselves from the tyranny of a certain kind of thinking, is to point out the underlying assumptions; this allows assumptions to be questioned, so “there may be easier access to true things, and the human understanding may be more willing to cleanse itself and dismiss its idols” (1: 61). Our next step, therefore, is to point out some assumptions of our current philosophical system, as a first step toward freeing ourselves from these idols.

1.4 The Unit Model

Copernicus’s new kind of thinking, which at first seemed absurd, turned out to be so successful that it has gradually acquired the status of common sense. Stated simply, this new thinking, which we will call the unit model, involves two key assumptions. First, we assume that the universe is composed of separately existing units (atoms, for example) that can be located in space-time, and whose identities remain the same regardless of how they are moved around and combined. Secondly, we assume that these units are inanimate; they don’t have their own desires and can’t do whatever they want; instead, they react passively to extrinsic forces, such as laws of nature.

Although these basic assumptions may sound simplistic and untenable when stated so baldly, they have proven to be very powerful and useful for certain purposes. Modern science and technology are living testimony to the power of unit model thinking. And over hundreds of years, the continuing success of science has led both scientists and lay people to assume that the universe really is composed of separate inanimate parts. Thus a Catholic biologist stated recently in the New York Times,

Everything we know about the biological sciences says that life is a phenomenon of physics and chemistry, and therefore the notion of some sort of spirit to animate it and give the flesh a life really doesn’t fit with modern science (Dean, 2007).

It is clear that if the universe were made of inanimate parts, then the possibility of “some sort of spirit” would it be ruled out a priori. But the unit model is not the universe; it is just one way of thinking about the universe. And even though it may be intuitively obvious today, it was not always so. It took the smartest minds in Europe hundreds of years to create the unit model, and even after it was created, many intelligent people thought the unit model was not nature, but a conceptual system they imposed on nature.

For example, in his Discourse on Method, Descartes proposed “…assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence” (1637/2004, 39-40). Similarly, Rousseau (1754) began his Discourse on the Inequality Among Men with the statement,

Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. [Our investigations are] mere conditional and hypothetical reasonings… just like the hypotheses which our physicists daily form. [Italics added]

However, there was also a growing tendency to confuse the unit model with reality, especially after Newton showed an astonished world that a single set of mathematical equations accurately described both the behavior of celestial bodies, and of falling bodies on earth. By the early 1800s most educated people assumed that everything was made of units and controlled by mathematical laws. And once they assumed the universe was made of separate units, anything that couldn’t be reduced to units had to be supernatural. A new idol was born.

1.5 Questioning the unit model

The idea that a conceptual model could correspond to reality has been problematic at least since the ancient Greeks. Obviously, in order to check reality we would need some way to access it directly, not as already organized by our living in it. Also, science is always changing, and not just at the level of tweaking general theories to make them more precise. The universe described by quantum physics is quite different from the Newtonian universe of a hundred years ago, and 100 years from now will probably be outmoded by some new understanding which we can’t even imagine. Reality can’t correspond to our concepts if our concepts are always changing.

However, like our Medieval ancestors, we have fallen into the assumption that reality has the same kind of order as our current concepts. We assume that everything is made of separate inanimate parts; and because “everything” includes us, we assume that we, too, are made of separate inanimate parts. In the words of Nobel Laureate Francis Crick (1995),

“You,” your hopes and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Assertions like this are part of a large and ongoing debate which won’t be resolved here; but some points can be made. First, if we assume that the unit model corresponds to reality, something like this must be true; we must be assemblies of neurons (or some other inanimate units), because nothing else is possible in the unit model.

But Crick’s statement appears to say more than that, although it actually doesn’t. The statement, “a car is no more than a vast assembly of steel and glass,” is about science and technology; it implies correctly that we know what cars are made of, and that we could take one apart and rebuild it if we wanted to. By contrast, we are nowhere near that point with consciousness. Certainly we know something about the function of many brain structures and neurotransmitters, but we are nowhere near being able to build consciousness out of nerve cells, or alter a specific thought at a molecular level. When Crick says “’You’… are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells,” we don’t even have clear agreement on what the word “you” refers to. So Crick’s statement isn’t about science or technology, it’s really just a statement of faith; he’s telling us that he believes in the unit model, and he’s giving us a promissory note, to be redeemed at some unknown time in the future.

Despite their scientific aura, claims like this are not science, but idols of the mind: Bacon noticed the same kind of thinking in 1620: “Once a man’s understanding has settled on something (either because it is an accepted belief or because it pleases him), it draws everything else also to support and agree with it” (Bacon, 1620/2000, 1: 46). It is a basic human tendency to suppose greater order in things than we actually find, and to apply a preferred conceptual system everywhere, creating parallels and connections while ignoring discrepancies, so that everything seems to fit our prior concepts (1:45-46). Bacon considered this a major impediment to the scientific revolution, because it closes us off to all but one avenue of thinking and research.

The apparent conflict between science and religion is a direct consequence of our assumption that the unit model corresponds to reality in some fundamental way. If we assume the universe is made of separate inanimate parts that can be located in space-time, then whatever can’t be described in those terms is by definition impossible. This rules out a great deal besides God; many experiments in quantum physics show results that continue to seem impossible, even as they are replicated in independent laboratories.

Similarly, the unit model rules out the possibility of human experience, not empirically of course, but by definition. A “conscious machine” is an oxymoron. By definition, separate inanimate units do not have consciousness or volition, no matter how many there are or how they are arranged. This has created an ongoing problem for scientists and philosophers; it’s hard to deny that we exist, and equally hard to explain (in unit model terms) how our existence could be possible. The problem can’t be solved in the form it has been posed; after years of heroic effort, no solution has been widely accepted. Subjective experience is either excluded from scientific discourse (Skinner, 1972), or else considered a “hard problem” (Chalmers, 1995) whose solution may require a new kind of concept which is currently unavailable (Nagel, 1998).

2. POI

The search for new concepts has already begun on many fronts, but one of the most promising new approaches is the Philosophy of the Implicit developed by the University of Chicago philosopher Eugene Gendlin (1997a, 1997b). Although (and perhaps because) the Philosophy of the Implicit has received about as much recognition in academia as Copernicus did, it is worth examining. In the remainder of this paper we will sketch two foundational concepts of this new approach: interaction first and direct reference.

2.1 Interaction First

Language is not a self-contained symbol system. Language and concepts function in a larger context of living interaction with the world. Because this interaction is us, we “know” it in a very basic way; we “know” what we are doing and how things are going, without necessarily using words. Even when things aren’t going well and an observer would say we don’t know what we’re doing, we still have this basic “feel” for what the situation is about and how it is going.

This comes to the fore quickly when you start your car in the wrong gear. There is an immediate visceral sense of something wrong, you reflexively slam on the brake, and only then does the conceptual mind catch up and realize what happened.

Most of what we do happens in the background, while we’re paying attention to something else. For example, driving a car is a very complex activity; but most people drive while they are absorbed in a conversation, listening to the radio, or daydreaming. When we talk, our words come out with precise grammar, syntax, and meaning; this happens with little or no deliberate planning, but if one word isn’t quite right, we “feel” it immediately and correct ourselves. Similarly, each of our relationships has its own rich intricacy, which could never be completely described in words, and yet we “know” what to do or say with each person, usually without even thinking. In our jobs or professions, we often have a “feel” for how to solve certain kinds of problems. The list could go on.

No set of rules can specify exactly how to do things like driving, talking, and relating to different people, and yet it is not as if such activities are imprecise so that any action would be okay. Living is very precise, and we know exactly what we are doing even when we can’t explain it, and small errors are noticed immediately. That we can’t codify such activities into rules does not mean that they are vague or imprecise, rather the opposite: the mesh of language is too wide to capture the intricacy of these activities; they are too precise for words. Words cannot define or specify, they can only point.

We can’t conceptualize reality perfectly or completely, but we we don’t have to because we are living in it and our living is also a kind of knowing. Thinking is part of this “knowing,” but not the basis for it; life goes on without explicitly knowing how it does so. A plant interacts with its environment in ways that humans are only beginning to understand; and yet the plant does this without concepts. Humans are more complex than plants, and we, too, interact with our environment in ways that are more intricate than concepts. We breathe, digest food, walk, talk, drive, have relationships, and so on, without explicit rules; and we don’t need explicit rules anymore than the plant does. Most of our life process is more intricate than concepts and goes on quite well without them.

This is not to denigrate concepts and logic, without which these words couldn’t even be conceived, let alone recorded on a computer in an air conditioned room. The point is that concepts are not the basis for all knowledge; concepts are a continuation or extension of a more basic kind of knowing, the process of living. Interaction with the environment comes first.

For example, consider a basic “fact” of science, the law of gravity. If you hold a pen in the air and let go, it falls. This seems like proof that gravity is real, because we can see the effect of gravity on the pen: gravity makes the pen fall. But then, what is “gravity”? In 1400, gravity was the basic tendency of elements to seek their proper places in an ordered universe; in 1700, gravity was an invisible force that acts at a distance; in the 1900s, gravity was the curvature of space-time, and today there are indications that gravity is a force carried by subatomic particles called gravitons.

In short, “gravity” is a concept that changes over time; and concepts don’t cause anything to fall. Rather than saying gravity caused the pen to fall, it would be more accurate to say that the pen falling caused (the concept of) gravity.

This is not an argument for some fuzzy constructivism or relativism; it is rather an argument for clear thinking, for “the keeping off and clearing away of idols” (Bacon, 1620/2004, 1: 40). Concepts don’t cause things to happen, and they don’t determine what is real or what is possible.

But there is a deeper point here. Concepts like gravity are indeed developments of particular conceptual systems, but that means they are also developments of our living in the world. Living is an ongoing demonstration that the universe must have its own order, different from the human order of concepts; because if there were no such order, even the simplest organisms would be impossible. Life itself depends on, and is, an implicit order that is different from the explicit order of concepts. Living is a different kind of “knowing,” more basic than concepts, a “knowing” that is validated by the fact that we go on living. The fact that concepts always change, but we go on living, demonstrates an implicit order that is “more than” our concepts.

2.2 Direct Reference and Focusing

Thus, we “know” more about reality than we can say with concepts, because our living in the world is much more intricate than concepts. Concepts are relative, but this is not a problem because our living does not depend on concepts; rather it is the other way around: our concepts depend on our living. So, in answer to relativists, we can point to an implicit knowing that is formulated in quite different ways by different people with different conceptual systems. Some might argue that this implicit knowing is merely subjective, so that anything could be said about it. Yet anyone who knows how to drive a car has a “feel” for what to do in different situations, and it would be hard to argue that this “feel” is “merely subjective.”

In fact, this “feel” embodies a vast amount of information; some of it was conceptual when we were learning, but much of it never was. Although basic to living, implicit knowing is often overlooked precisely because it is implicit. If we’re not directly aware of it or we can’t say it in words, then it doesn’t seem like real knowledge. Yet when we are stuck because our concepts are inadequate to solve a problem, and we have enough experience to have developed a “feel” for the problem, then this “feel” can be the source of new and better concepts.

For example, Albert Einstein grew up with a deep interest in electromagnetism, which was nurtured by many early experiences. As a result, he developed “a profound physical feel [for the principles of electromagnetism] and not just a theoretical understanding of them” (Isaacson, 2007, p. 91). His later work on relativity was guided by “a deep faith in his intuitive feel for the physical world” (Isaacson, p. 214). Regarding this intuitive feel, Einstein observed that “a new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way, but intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience” (Isaacson, p. 113).

Many people have noticed implicit knowing and described it in various ways (e.g., Gladwell, 2007; Hassin, Uleman, & Bargh, 2006); but Gendlin and colleagues, in a series of research studies conducted at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, developed a proceedure to teach people how to access implicit knowing directly (Gendlin, Beebe, Cassens, Klein, & Oberlander, 1968). They called the procedure Focusing, and the implicit knowing, a felt sense (Gendlin, 1981; Cornell, 1996). Numerous studies conducted over 35 years have shown that the degree to which a person refers to their felt sense is a stable characteristic which can be reliably and quantitatively measured, and that this characteristic is associated with positive outcomes in psychotherapy (Hendricks, 2002; Watson & Bedard, 2006).

The advantage of Focusing is that the felt sense, as implicit knowing, is a ground or basis for developing better concepts. Concepts, like cookie cutters, leave out a great deal. We can’t think without concepts, but direct reference to the felt sense allows us to shift the cookie cutters around, making the cuts where they are most useful. When something isn’t working, we can feel into what is wrong and reconceptualize the situation in a better way, using concepts like tools, instead of being limited by them.

3. Spiritual Experience

Basic to the concept of interaction first is that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. Focusing confirms this conceptual truth experientially. The experience of Focusing is similar to that of certain kinds of prayer and meditation, and exploration in that direction opens into what could be called spiritual awareness. However, the experience doesn’t depend on concepts or labels; atheists experience the same thing. An atheist friend of mine admits that spiritual language fits the experience quite well, and although he prefers not to use that language, he now has a deeper understanding and respect for those who do.

Scientific theories and concepts derive from interactions with reality (experiments); and while theories and concepts change, the interactions they were derived from continue to be possible, even though the theories they “proved” are long forgotten. Thus if archaeologists found an ancient description of some technical procedure whose result surprised us, we could repeat that procedure today and learn from it. It wouldn’t matter if the ancient author understood the procedure in terms of pagan deities, and we understood it in terms of quantum physics; if the ancient procedure was reported accurately, then we could repeat it and the results would be the same.

As in traditional science, so in traditional religion. Explicit formulations are always limited and limiting, and so we have many different formulations: We have many different concepts about God, and also many different scriptures, ceremonies, and spiritual practices. Each of these is derived from and points back to an interaction with reality; in other words, it is a formulation of a spiritual experience. Instead of arguing about which one is “right” or whether any or all of them are at variance with this year’s unit model understanding of reality, we can use these formulations (the scriptures, ceremonies, concepts, and spiritual practices) to rediscover the spiritual experience they originally referred to. Instead of looking at the sign, we can look where the sign is pointing.

The Philosophy of the Implicit invites us to use our concepts, not to define reality from the outside, but as a way “in” to a deeper realization of what we already know implicitly. Instead of arguing over whether God exists, for example, we can explore beyond our usual concepts, whether they be concepts of religious belief or of atheism, and discover the actual basis for spiritual experience, which was implicit in ourselves and in the world all along.

For example, just as a modern scientist might rediscover some long forgotten truth about nature by repeating a procedure described in an ancient manuscript, we can use Focusing to find profound, life-changing meaning in rituals and liturgies that had previously seemed completely empty. This is being done, and the result is striking; for example, a liturgical ceremony which had been dry and taken for granted for decades, suddenly brings tears to the eyes and invites immediate spiritual transformation. Instead of being stuck on the words, we find the source where the meaning of words comes from.

This result seems to occur in any religious tradition; as spiritual awareness deepens, words and rituals that had seemed completely meaningless, suddenly open up into whole new worlds of meaning. Focusing is currently being used in Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. Additional information is available on the Focusing Institute’s Spirituality web page.

By its nature, Focusing also invites us to live our spirituality in more practical ways; living is, after all, doing. We find what is spiritual here, now; not as a static “truth,” but as an implied next step, as action in the world. For example, Focusers are currently working in Pakistan and Afghanistan to promote psychosocial wellness and resilience in local communities. Focusing has been remarkably well received there (hundreds of Pakistanis and Afghans have become Focusing trainers and are teaching it to others), in part because practitioners appreciate how Focusing supports and deepens their practice of Islam.

Focusing is a demonstration of the basic principles of the Philosophy of the Implicit. Until now, it has been generally assumed that knowledge requires clear precise concepts, and concerns only entities which can be located in space-time. This new approach shows that the implicit also exists, and that we can think about it and with it. Other and better approaches will no doubt be discovered in the future, but now at least we know that it is possible.

4. Conclusion

When Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, he named the perpetrators correctly (“We have killed him, you and I”), but he misidentified the victim. It was not God who died, but an image of God that we created and later killed. We are paying a high price for this confusion, but it is not God who is dead; it is we who are dead to God.

All of this points to the need for a new kind of thinking. Traditional science is stuck in areas such as the study of consciousness (as distinct from neurobiology), because traditional concepts exclude exactly what is being studied. Religious ceremonies and dogmas seem to be losing relevance for many people, and church attendance is dropping.

We have reached the limits of concepts and don’t know how to go on. Like the drunk who looks for his keys under the streetlight because he can see better there, we keep looking for God with concepts. But whatever concepts we create are limited, just because they are concepts. The search is frustrating and many people are giving up.

Yet the awareness that we are part of something larger than ourselves is as common to humanity as language. Even as traditional concepts of God appear to be invalidated, new concepts are emerging; but these new insights and understandings will themselves eventually become idols, unless we can address the underlying problem, the inherent limitation of conceptual models.

We need more than just a new scientific revolution. Bacon already understood in 1620 that “there is no hope except in a new birth of science; that is in raising it regularly up from experience and building it afresh” (1620/2004, 1: 97; italics added). We are now in a position to do this; we can free ourselves from idols and use concepts in a new way. We can create a new science with clear, precise concepts developing continuously from and with the Implicit.


1 Because many editions are available, reference to page numbers in the New Organon is of limited use; therefore the aphorisms are cited by book number followed by the aphorism number, e.g. (Bacon, 1620/2004, 1: 20).



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