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World and Counter-Worlds

March 14, 2017 • By G√ľnter Thomas World and Counter-Worlds

Human beings have an amazing, simultaneously wonderful and dangerous double capacity: firstly, they can draw a distinction between the way the world is and the way the world could be. Then, secondly, they can claim that the way the world could be is the way it should become. Any ideas and projects to enhance life, any kind of utopia or dystopia, any vision and hope, all grow out of this tremendous capacity of normative, and thereby transformative, expectations. In order to understand and stipulate the human drive for enhancing life, we would like to suggest working with the distinction between world and counter-world. Human beings can draw a distinction between world and counter-world, and can inhabit both – be it today through the means of imagination, or be it "tomorrow" in "reality"!

By the term “world”, we do not mean the empirical environment of human and non-human life, the “reality of dreadful immanence,” as Robert Bellah put it. Rather, by “world”, we mean any structured domain of relations and meanings within which living creatures must orient their lives. At the same time, any actions of orientation affirm, shape, and model this world. While it has been popular among some strands of modern Western philosophy to say that only human beings have a “world,” whereas other non-human animals inhabit environments, that anthropocentric idea has increasingly been challenged by research into other social animals. It is hard to claim, for example, that dolphins or whales, with their complex patterns of communication, do not in some sense inhabit a world. 

Yet, whatever the case about who can and cannot have a “world,” the idea remains: a world is any structured domain of relations and meanings within which living creatures must orient their lives. But a world is not just the way things are. In this respect, a world is a domain of “freedom” in the sense that how a being orients life within that domain of space/time is not absolutely predetermined by the finite conditions of space/time. 

The idea of “world” is then an analogical concept meant to isolate similarities-in-differences among quite diverse domains of meanings and relations. Correspondingly, for describing the intricate dynamics of enhancing life, the distinction between world and counter-world is a conceptual tool. The idea of world is important because it signals the fact that human beings, and perhaps other creatures as well, can and do inhabit many different “worlds”. Therefore they must orient their lives in different ways within those domains that both sustain and limit actions and relations. This also means that the context or environment—that is, the surrounding condition—of a world includes other worlds. And yet there is a second dimension in distinguishing world and counter-world. Negotiating the interaction among worlds for the sake of enhancing life is then a form of boundary management with respect to possibilities for and limits on life. Another world can become a possible world for the world given and currently lived in. How, then, are we to designate the relation among possible worlds? How real is the counter-world? Is it the “really real”, as Clifford Geertz would say?

A counter-world is a reality that manifests a distinction between present conditions and possible states of affairs. Counter-worlds function to instigate processes of transformation of life. They may be found in religion and the religious imagination, but may also, for instance, be found in media narratives, cultural ideologies, social ideals, and visions of technological enhancement. They are also more or less articulated in literature, theatre, worship and dance. Counter-worlds can be designed as utopias or dystopias. Accordingly, they can function for the enhancement of life, but also be used, implicitly or explicitly, to distort and endanger life.

In order to clarify the idea of a counter-world, consider an example. The Christian tradition deeply values and honors human life in its many dimensions and, at the same time, has always carried with it a strong notion of “a life to come.” Even though the spiritual resources of the tradition were not always fully uncovered, the Christian notion of life is dynamic and multilayered. Life is always a life interwoven in some way into a “counter-world” that helps to find the true life for the faithful and the world, even as it provides permanent and creative “spiritual aspirations.” One can then ask: “How does the hope for God’s current and future creative presence stimulate human creative striving for the enhancing of life?” In other words: “What are the pragmatics of religious counter-worlds?” The underlying assumption is that the tension between what is religiously considered the world and the counter-world can be utilized in a creative way for the drive to transform this world. 

As noted above, religions are means by which to navigate the interaction and tension between the dreadful immanence of finite existence and transcendent powers. The idea of counter-worlds enables us to examine that interaction and tension in both creative and destructive ways, life-enhancing and life-endangering ways.  A Christian, for instance, might explore the complex unity of love, faith, and hope in order to show how the dynamic relationship between world and religious counter-world is effectively manifested and evident in ways that contribute to enhancing life. Using the specific shape of the unity of love, faith, and hope as a heuristic tool to uncover the pragmatics of counter-worlds, one might even be able to isolate and to analyze the spiritual laws embedded in this unity within the Christian tradition. 

The idea of “counter-world”, and the presence of counter-worlds in all of human personal and social life, is then a means by which to open the religions as resources for collaborative research into enhancing life. It enables the Project’s scholars, or at least some of them, to access religious resources for shared ends not dependent on some explicit “faith” commitment.

For The Enhancing Life Project overall, the idea of counter-worlds (and behind it the concept of a “world”) allows scholars to interrelate the findings of diverse disciplines, including religious studies and theology, without a regression to the “two cultures.” In fact, inasmuch as strictly empirical research must generate hypotheses and theories about finite beings, events, and relations, the scholars engage in an imaginative act analogous to the generation of counter-worlds in the religions. What is more, they seek to show how those hypotheses, if validated, will in fact enhance life. So too purely rational inquiry seeks to isolate the principles and transcendental conditions for finite life, in order thereby to enhance actual life in some way and to some measure. Yet those conditions and principles do not have the same reality or truth conditions as finite life, and are in this sense analogous to a “counter-world.” The point is that the idea of a counter-world opens the possibility of collaborative search among disciplines, and can and must be warranted by its ability to produce knowledge about the many dynamics of enhancing life.


"World and Counter-Worlds" is an excerpt from "Which Life; What Enhancement? A Report on The Enhancing Life Project" by William Schweiker and Günter Thomas, written for the Religion and Culture Web Forum. To see the full paper via the Web Forum site, click here.