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Pantheism + Egoism = Altruism

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece asking the question of whether the financial crisis would have happened if Wall Street bankers had all been devout Christians, and concluded that there was no good reason to believe it wouldn’t have. That essay sparked a discussion on the TYT forum that wandered into some very abstract metaphysical territory, but it was one of the best online conversations I’ve ever had. Among the many points I was made to consider was whether a belief system, even if it has no scientific basis, can be justifiably adopted due to the potential positive consequences of its widespread acceptance. There is a belief system that would undoubtedly guarantee positive consequences, and while I wouldn’t urge anyone to accept it I’d urge everyone to consider it. If this belief were to be universally accepted by humanity, there would almost certainly have been no financial crisis, no oil spill, no war on terror, no 9/11—virtually none of the tragedies we’ve faced in the last decade or throughout human history.

There were many stops along the road I took from Christianity to atheism, but the one I spent the most time considering was a kind of pantheism I later learned was the core metaphysical belief of Hinduism. Pantheism is the belief that God is everything, a revelation I came to at the age of 13 which gradually led me away from the Christian dogma that conflicts with that belief. Not that Hinduism doesn’t have its fair share of dogma, but the core belief is one I find much more elegant and appealing. It’s a belief I came to on my own (though I’ll confess a few experiences with substances I no longer take might have played a role) and only later discovered that the idea had already been around for thousands of years. In spite of its many gods, Hinduism is at its core a monotheistic religion, with the “Brahman-Atman” in the role westerners would call God. The Brahman-Atman simultaneously creates and experiences the universe. It is the awareness within all of us. When we die, we become one with the Brahman-Atman like a drop of water returning to the ocean.

Picture yourself waking up in total darkness with complete amnesia. You have no body, no memory, no knowledge of what you are or how you came to be. You are aware of only one thing—you exist. But although you lack memory you have the ability to imagine, so you begin to imagine things based on what you experience. If the only thing you experience is darkness, you imagine something else—light. You imagine darkness fading into light and back into darkness—time. You imagine light taking different forms—substance. You imagine the forms operating according to simple patterns—physical laws. You imagine these forms interacting within a confined space—a universe. Once you have all the ingredients necessary for a universe, you begin to imagine very simple universes, perhaps one in which two particles come into existence, meet, and disappear. Next you imagine more particles and more complex interactions. As time goes on the particles and their interactions become more and more complex and eventually you have the hydrogen atom, from which you get stars and galaxies and eventually other heavier atoms and composites of atoms from which you get planets with solid surfaces upon which DNA can form and slowly evolve into life-forms. The life-forms also gradually become more and more complex until they become capable of thought. All the while you have been capable of being any of these things and experiencing these universes of your creation as the elements within them. You can become so involved in being the elements of your creation that while you are in that state-of-being you lose awareness of the fact that it all came from your imagination. While you are experiencing your universe as a tree or a fish or a human, you know only what it is to be a tree, fish, or human. You don’t realize that you are not merely this particular being but every other being in the universe as well, and that all of these beings are your own creation. You are God—everything and everyone else is also God—and none are aware of it.

And yet, many people do seem to arrive at this belief through intuition. Meditation and reflection can lead one to the understanding that everything springs from Mind. Unfortunately, such a conclusion is subject to serious doubt, as it’s not hard imagine why Mind, with only Mind as a tool, would determine that Mind is all that exists. The scenario I described above rests on a whole slew of dubious assumptions which is why I ultimately decided I could no longer accept it as the likeliest candidate for the fundamental nature of reality.

However, we still know so little about awareness and how it works—how consciousness comes into being and the causal relationship between it and the body—that this pantheistic scenario could still be considered a legitimate possibility. And if it is possible that this is the way things are, it has profound implications for morality.

We are not separate beings. At the deepest level, I who am writing this am no different than you who are reading it. The same thing that looks out from my eyes is what looks out from behind yours. It’s the same thing that has looked through the eyes of everyone and everything that has ever lived or ever will live. It’s as though a solitary light is shining through an enormous canvas full of holes and projecting billions of tiny points of light against another wall. Each point of light appears separate and distinct, but the source is the same.

The easiest way to think of this is to imagine that as soon as you die, you are born as another person, and when you die as that person, you are born as another, and so on. You don’t merely have a handful of past lives—every past life is yours. You live every single life that comes into being. You have been every person or animal that has ever existed on this planet or any other planet in the universe. Everything that has ever been experienced has been experienced by you.

If this is what you believe, how likely is it that you will harm another? You don’t even need to live by the “Do unto others as you’d have done to you” principle because everything you do to others is done to you when you live that life. Empathy is not a virtue to be cultivated, but rather the default position. You care about what happens to other people because you must care. You are other people. You are all other people.

It is human nature to be selfish. Selfishness seems far more primal and prevalent than empathy and compassion. But under this belief system, the line between egoism and altruism disappears. If such a belief were universal, even the most selfish individuals would have to help others out of their own self-interest. If you thought the promise of a heavenly reward was a strong motivation to perform altruistic actions for egoistic reasons, imagine how strong a motivation this belief system would be. If one’s sense of self extends to every human being or every living thing, then the most selfish actions would be those that benefit the greatest number.

So let’s take this discussion back down to earth and consider how different the world would be if this were the prevailing belief system. Wall Street bankers would not have caused the financial crisis if they knew they would have to live the lives of everyone who suffered as a result of it. British Petroleum would never have been so negligent as to let their rig explode and spew out all that oil into the sea if they knew they would not only have to live the lives of every fisherman put out of work due to the spill but every last bird, fish, and sea-turtle that chokes and dies on the filth. In fact, it’s likely that there would be no offshore oil drilling at all because humans would have collectively decided that the risk to the many would absolutely outweigh the reward of the few. The American people would never have allowed Bush and Cheney to start the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because we would have been unwilling to live the lives of the millions of innocent people who would suffer, die, or lose loved ones as a result. But the terrorist attacks of 9/11 wouldn’t have happened anyway, as who would want to blow up a building knowing that in another life they are in that building?

Who would murder someone if they knew they would have to be murdered? Who would rape someone knowing that they also experience the rape? What kind of person would ever harm a child, knowing that they would have to be that child and experience the full degree of fear and horror that the child would have to endure?

What politician would sell out his constituents for the promise of a lucrative job later on if they knew they not only represented those constituents but that they are those constituents? What board of directors of a multi-national corporation would allow their corporation to harm millions of people if they knew they had to live those lives as well? Why would society even allow such an entity that places profit over the common good to even exist and become so powerful in the first place? Would a small group of wealthy and powerful elites make so much effort to accumulate more wealth and power at everyone else’s expense if they recognized how small a ratio of time in which they live their privileged lives would be in comparison to the amount of time in which they would have to live in poverty?

Who can honestly say that if human beings universally believed that we all share the same awareness, that the common good of all living things wouldn’t be the number one consideration on everybody’s mind? That after thousands of years of brutality, all those violent battles we both won and died painfully in, all those heretics we both burned and were burned as, all those people we tortured and were tortured as, all those animals we’ve slaughtered and been slaughtered as—we wouldn’t collectively decide to end the suffering, to stop being so cruel to each other and thus to ourselves, and to do whatever would be necessary to provide everyone with the basic requirements of a comfortable, worthwhile life?

I no longer believe in this Brahman-Atman view of things, but I still look at the world with the possibility in mind. When I find myself loathing someone like a racist carrying a hateful sign or a politician lying through his teeth to protect a corporation, I force myself to consider the possibility that I am that person too. When I consider any new law or policy I think about how it will affect everyone, just in case I am everyone.

So I don’t think the world needs to believe this is true in order to for us to drastically improve things, but it’s enough to believe it might be true. Think of Pascal, who said that it’s better to believe in God because you lose nothing if you’re wrong and gain everything if you’re right, but if you bet against God’s existence and He does exist your loss is infinitely terrible. If we believe that we all share one consciousness and we’re right, we gain billions of lifetimes in an earthly paradise. If we believe that we all share one consciousness and we’re wrong, we gain an earthly paradise anyway, though experienced merely in one life. But if we reject the possibility that we all share one consciousness and it turns out we do, we have to endure billions more lifetimes of pain and suffering.

So to all the egoists out there who are incapable of caring about anyone other than your self: do you want to risk it? How sure are you that your self is limited to you alone? If the little girl in Iran might also be your self, how sure are you that you want to drop that nuclear bomb on her? If that child dying of starvation in Africa might also be your self, do you still not give a damn? If those lefty liberal commie bastards you hate so much might also be your self, do you still refuse to consider what they have to say?

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