The question “Is this all there is” makes sense inside the immanent frame. Prior to this becoming our default common picture of the world we live in (and in parts of the world where this is not [yet?] the framework), this would not be an intelligible question.
But here and now, this question is, and often insistently, asked. What it reflects is a sense that there must be, or there should be, something more to our lives beyond the short mortal time-space existence of us “rational” animals.
What leads people to ask this question? If we could find the answer to this, clearly and definitively, we would have the key to our existence, the answer to all the puzzles of philosophical anthropology. But while many people have hunches (including me), no one can demonstrate theirs. And this situation will continue for quite some time (to use a massive understatement).
But something can be said about a very common motivation for the search for a beyond in our time. I would describe it as a desire, even a longing, for ethical transformation. I mean something that goes beyond acquiring a specific skill or capacity—as when I might aspire to win the Olympic weightlifting medal. Ethical transformation here means that our most profound ethical motivation changes so that we become capable of living what we understand as a “higher” ethical life.
This aspiration is central to many religions, but it does not arise only within these. As a matter of fact, it can take atheist forms. Take Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance. His atheist credentials are unimpeachable. But (on one reading) we can see him as aspiring to a state where he can “say ‘yes’” (ja sagen) to whatever comes to be—that is, achieve a kind of amor fati. And then there are counter-Nietzschean atheists who, unlike him, believe in and strive for the fullest respect for universal human rights but are very aware of their failings, their propensity to goof off sometimes, the impurity of their motivations, et cetera.
But surely, one might say, atheists accept the immanent frame? In some respects, yes: there is nothing beyond this time-space, mortal existence. But in others, no: they cannot accept certain reductive accounts of human life that align our motivation with that of animals in general.
So many people in our age are on a quest, one might say, to understand and then change their lives in the light of some horizon of transformation. And these horizons are multiple, and beyond that, they are diversifying, as new variants come to be conceived and aimed at. Some draw on more than one religious tradition, others combine the resources of certain religions with an atheist humanism, and so on.
This centrality of the ethical goes back to Immanuel Kant, whose religious beliefs—freedom, the existence of God, and immortality—were seen as “postulates of practical reason”; that is, conditions under which alone moral obligation makes sense. In a very different fashion, and with results that would have puzzled—even horrified—Kant, many of our contemporaries are mining the same terrain.
Another way to address the question that motivates these reflections is to challenge its assumption about the nature of “all there is.” This is the move we see in the new materialism, which reimagines the world (or planetary being) according to dynamic, vitalist forces and processes: a “flat” ontology in which nonhuman and human are ranged without hierarchy. Although such philosophies are founded upon an explicit rejection of transcendental and humanist traditions, they too seem indicative of a kind of longing for something more – if not “higher” –
than – the “mortal-space time existence of rational animals.” Material – the “all there is” – is infused with mind; the dimensionality of existence is more expansive than we can grasp; the horizons of possibility and interconnection multiple. In other words, “all there is” is much more vital and interesting than we have previously imagined. Matter “feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers.”
The ethics of planetary solidarity emerging from these principles is equally passionate, and also compassionate. And yet it remains to be seen whether the kinds of ethical and societal transformation so desired by proponents of such a worldview can be advanced within a post-human frame of the subject, as one among a seeming infinity of constantly shifting processes and forces.