Syntheism in its current form relies on a few key philosophical ideas, such as relationalism and monism, that can be viewed as our dogmas and core beliefs, all of which are subject to creative revision whenever this is deemed appropriate or necessary in light of technological innovations and scientific progress. It is also an umbrella term for those spiritual and religious narratives that are more believable and cohesive than others, as we continue to learn about and explore the nature of the universe, life and human existence.
The narratives of our life stories equip us with the socio-cultural tools and resources to make sense of our experiences, such as basic assumptions about how the world operates and our place in it, and how we relate to one another, even if we’ve never articulated our beliefs explicitly (“This is God’s will”, “Things happen for a reason”, “Nothing happens for a reason at all”). It is a simple psychological fact that we are not always aware of the narrative that guides our decisions and orchestrates our emotions, unless we happen to make a traumatic or other life-changing experience that forces us to readjust to a new reality.
We take inspiration from various thinkers such as Zoroaster, Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, Alfred North Whitehead, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Karen Barad, Stuart Kauffman and Quentin Meillassoux, but also from literature, art and participatory culture. (Such philosophical concepts and big names shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Syntheism becomes whatever Syntheists choose to make of it, and that people are free to contribute in any way they deem fit—whatever deepens and enhances their religious experience. After all, Syntheism is an open-source religion, based on co-creation and dialogue.)
For Spinoza, the relentless pursuit of the truth was nothing less than a spiritual practice and exercise in attaining fulfillment and blessedness in this life—through attitude awareness and an intuitive, comprehensive understanding of the workings of nature or God. According to the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, this ethical commitment to truthfulness is the historical link between the religionist’s quest for the divine and the scientist’s mission to map the true order of things (see here).
According to Spinoza’s metaphysics, all that is, is in God; there is one substance with an infinite number of attributes; all modes are interconnected. A substance is an entity which can be conceived through itself, as its own ground. There can’t be two such self-caused, self-sustaining substances, as in René Descartes’ mind-body dualism, because that scenario would require a third substance to mediate between the first two substances, which then requires a fourth substance that mediates between the first three, ad infinitum. The sole substance there is, is by necessity infinite, boundless and eternal, and thus encompasses all that exists. As such, it can be identified with God: “Whether we say that all things happen according to the laws of nature, or are ordered by the decree and direction of God, we say the same thing.”
An attribute is what the human intellect understands as constituting and expressing the essence of God, such as matter (res extensa) and mind (res cogitans), although there are infinitely more attributes to which we have no access. That is, res extensa and res cogitans are not two separate entities or two distinct substances, but rather two aspects or features of the divine: “The mind and the body are one and the same individual, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension. (…) The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.” The things that make up the natural world are finite modes, or modifications of God’s attributes, each operating according to their predetermined nature (thinking within res cogitans, movement within res extensa). All such things, including human beings, rely on and are connected to one other. There can be nothing outside or separate from God. (Scholars have been arguing whether Spinoza’s monism amounts to pantheism or pan-en-theism, since God is infinitely more than the natural world plus the ideas we form of it.)
Spinoza dismissed anthropomorphic concepts by which we attribute human qualities to God—as the loving and caring father or the ruthless king. Spinoza’s all-encompassing, immanent God is not restricted or limited by anything, but truly omnipotent and thus capable of creating literally everything. There was no decision prior to the creation of the world, nor did any particular motivation cause God to create it. This further entails that there is no purpose in life, according to which certain things or events, after careful planning and consideration, were created in favor of other things and events. Moralistic concepts of sin, guilt and innocence have thus no place in Spinoza’s theology.
As finite modes, we are sparks of God’s unlimited power, although this power it not evenly distributed among all modes. A person’s desire to persist in existence and maximize their power (conatus) is identical with that person’s essence, since there is only one essence, one substance, which is uninhibited and incessant creativity. As Spinoza put it: “Desire is the essence of man.” The desire to persist in existence and increase our power is identical with the pursuit of joy and pleasure. According to Spinoza’s attribute parallelism, intelligence increases in proportion to the increase in the power to act, and vice versa. It is therefore everyone’s sacred duty to live to their full potential and to increase their powers through friendship, and under the guidance of reason.
Due to the ateleological nature of God, the conatus is undirected and aimless—there is no purpose in existence, but only a first cause (= God) that gave birth to a multitude of relations. Hence we do not strive for or want something because we deem it good; on the contrary, we deem a thing good because we desire and want it. Because our concept of the world depends on random encounters and experiences—on how other bodies have acted upon our own—, we ought to educate ourselves and make use of reason in order to understand cause and consequence, and how all events in life relate to each other.
In order to attain knowledge about the causal and logical order of the world, one must overcome the false and toxic ideas that prevent us from living to the fullest. Since we are all connected to one another, good is synonymous with that which enhances one’s life, while evil or bad is anything which lowers one’s vitality and activity: “As far as good and evil are concerned, they indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another.” That is, “one and the same thing can, at the same time, be good, and bad, and also indifferent.”
But good and evil are not a matter of opinion. Due to external influences and our distorted view of the world, our power fluctuates over time, and Spinoza therefore studied and mapped our emotional inner worlds and passions. Our emotional states have often to do with imagination and distortion, so we often desire what weakens and contaminates us. That is, suffering is linked to ignorance of our true nature, whereas genuine happiness and self-love are linked to knowledge and wisdom. In other words, what is good or bad varies from person to person, from context to context, but it is nevertheless objectively beneficial or harmful to each person of a largely similar constitution who happens to be in that specific situation.
This further explains why there is no real conflict between self-interest and altruism: “The more each one seeks his own advantage, and strives to preserve himself, the more he is endowed with virtue, or what is the same, the greater is his power of acting according to the laws of his own nature, that is, of living under the guidance of reason. But men most agree in nature when they live according to the guidance of reason. Therefore, men will be most useful to one another, when each one most seeks his own advantage.” (Spinoza refers here to a more spiritual, deeper kind of intelligence—an intuitive, comprehensive understanding of existence, as the one virtue that we can freely share with one another, without resorting to envy or resentment.)
Although it is impossible to squeeze Spinoza’s philosophy into one blog post, it should be noted that his account of human psychology resonates with research findings in neurology and psychology. His faith in reason may seem a bit odd to us 21st century people, and his determinism lacks the notion of emergence (which defeats determinism). But his analysis of our emotions and passions, and how they cause the inevitable mess in which we find ourselves far too often, is solid and impressively precise. Reason isn’t above nor superior to our passions, because both reason and emotion are equally legitimate parts of our condition, and the conflict between them arises from ignorance: “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.”
After all, Spinoza’s philosophy is all about self-empowerment. It gives us a sense of interrelatedness and embeddedness. Intelligence is inherently joyous, and those are free who live to their fullest, who engage in the pursuit of pleasure and knowledge.