Does religion emerge as a product of complex systems?
Why do people take up religions, persist with them, and abandon them ? Whatever you think of religions personally, or any particular religion, they seem to have been around forever amongst (most) humans, and seem unlikely to go away entirely amongst the species as a whole. Clearly though, particular cultures in various historical phases have many members who are attracted to religions or substitute ideologies, but tend to drift away from them in other phases. At a different level, women seem to be the most persistent believers by numbers, but religious hierarchies are almost always controlled by (humourless old) men… What is it in human psychology that generates these religious phenomena? Since religion is universal across human groups, yet not universal within groups, does it embody some optional extra mechanism in the complex systems we call mind? Is it species specific? … the questions are endless, and we can scarcely answer them here, but following a long human tradition, I have written a small allegory to explore some possibilities.
Disclaimer: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.
Religion has a thousand dimensions. It has violently consumed the lives of whole societies, and stabilized a myriad of others. Carnage has been (and continues to be) committed in its name, yet communities have been founded on its dedication. For those inclined to scholarship, there are kilometers of volumes in places like the Vatican, documenting the dusty opinions and controversies of learned men (mostly men) for millennia. For those craving more than a mortal life, there are terabytes of records in the granite vaults of Utah’s Mormons, hoping to collect the records of who begat whom through all the sperm trails of human settlement. And then there are those of us (for I am one) for whom religion has lost its sting, yet remains a fascinating edifice whose intricacies offer insights and warnings about whatever it is that makes us what we are.
It would be pointless for me in this little essay to wrestle with the battalions of religious enthusiasts, past and present, the strident atheists, the cautious agnostics, the shoals of casual shoppers in the supermarket of the spirits. For anyone interested, in the late 1990s I did collect a scattering of my wry comments across the years, now somewhat updated and mellowed. It is referenced as “The Agnostic's Survival Manual” at the end of these notes. Don’t look to that for consistency, but you are bound to find an argument.
As to my current working metaphor, well I am inclined to see religion, for those who hold to it, as a kind of mental prism. Just as a prism of glass splits light, the mental prism of religious belief (I think) splits the world into moral and existential categories. The good guys use religion as a reason for what they do, and the bad guys use religion as an excuse for what they do. I don’t need reasons or excuses like that, but I can see the attraction for some in displacing responsibility to another agent.
Instead of argument, I have taken the slippery path here of writing an allegory for the future. I am afraid it lacks the charm of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The Muse has declined to rest upon my shoulder. Still, I hope this rough account of Cynthuria and her discovery of personal gods can help to play with some ideas about where religions might have come from, and where they may go. Cynthuria is not one of us. She dwells in a time, perhaps not too far in the future, where humans first began to modify themselves, then were altogether displaced by emergent creatures engineered to be superior to their originators.
2. The allegory of Cynthuria, and times to come
Cynthuria was a third generation emergent. Her friends found her attractive. The emergents had allowed some of the more dubious genetic patterning from source DNA to remain. Certain emotional attachments for example had clear uses if they were carefully managed, and Cynthuria had a stronger than normal blend for charisma. Still, she had some worrying tendencies. She seemed fond of ritual, and she tended to be sentimental. In an old hangar Cynthuria had assembled an odd museum of artifacts from the humanoid originators. The humanoids had passed of course, a fading memory tinged with guilt, and the emergent leaders were not altogether happy to have any evidence of their lost glories kept in the popular mind. It was quietly hoped that within a few more generations of emergent development, the humanoid originators could be relegated to quaint myth and fairy stories.
For Cynthuria, the humanoid originators seemed to have a certain mystical presence. It was true that none of her contemporaries had ever seen an originator, but their reputed qualities and failings somehow stirred a personal resonance that logic could not dispose of. In the end, Cynthuria could not accept that the originators had been entirely mortal creatures of the planet, now as extinct as crystallized insects from an archeological excavation. Damn it, she could feel the originator presence in everything she touched. They were with her, behind her, ahead of her, around her. The constant originator presence was disturbing, but it was comforting in a way too. Cynthuria found herself pausing for their imagined approval, or hesitating to be mean lest an originator disapproved.
Cynthuria was a gregarious emergent, not programmed to keep her wandering ideas locked down and private. Although she was slightly ironic and humorous about her imagined company of originators, over time other emergents in her circle came to realized that Cynthuria was perfectly genuine about the exotic restraints she felt on personal actions. Her patterning made no sense in terms of the official growth program for new emergents, yet some came to see that she was not altogether a deviant. Perhaps they felt some stirring of a similar presence themselves.
It was in about the 40th summer that Cynthuria decided to take a deviant risk. For a decade she had privately encoded her imaginary relationship with the originators. Perhaps it was a metaphor of some kind, but it was a very extended metaphor which lent a personal logic to her actions and hopes. It was comforting to have this framework, and it was comforting to have the mind-guidance of an originator at her shoulder. Her deviant risk now was to encode this relationship with the originators into a story, a tale that could be told, even to children. Perhaps they would find it amusing.
Cynthuria’s originator story had unintended consequences. That is, it spread quickly and attracted a crowd of emergents about whom Cynthuria had known nothing before. They seemed to see her as some kind of authority or advisor. It was a bit disturbing really. This particular group of emergents did not find the imagined presence of her private originators humorous or even strange. They seemed eager to share the presence, and were soon assuring her that they too knew of this invisible company. Since Cynthuria had kept a diary of how her hidden mentors had guided her moral choices, it was not long before some scholarly emergents began to write serious accounts of how the originators were channeling an ancient wisdom which emergents should and must follow. A holy scripture had come into being.
The emergent leaders heard of Cynthuria. They were not surprised. They had encountered this kind of thing before. There were steps which needed to be taken to contain the influence. It was a matter of education really, but a difficult kind of education. Even amongst emergent scientists, the study of cognition and the complex mathematics of self-learning algorithms it involved was considered a specialized field. The foundations for understanding complex self-learning systems had even been laid by some originators in the Late Era, but their work had not been widely known.
The crux of it seemed to be that complex galaxies of cognitive algorithms evolved executive hierarchies to influence selections in lower order systems of the organism. The originators had a general physiological design which assigned ultimate executive control to a particular meta-algorithm at any moment of time. This meta algorithm also mediated the organism’s relationship with external objects and events. The originators had called it consciousness. Some originators eventually realized that the “consciousness” meta algorithm itself was not always unique or constant, but this had not been a popular understanding. The popular working assumption had always been that consciousness embodied ego, “I”, the core of a unique and continuing originator while living.
The dilemma for originators, as for emergents, was that a complex existence involved choices, including social choices. Choices could be difficult, they could be embarrassing, they posed a risk for the future, and a risk to reputation in the present. That is, choices entailed responsibility. Responsibility was empowering in a universe which worked well. Sooner or later though, the common experience was that things would start to not work well. Death, for example, might make impersonal sense in physics, expressing the second law of thermodynamics. To an individual originator or emergent, death was definitely something not working well, and the organism had to account to itself for what was going wrong.
Somewhere there was sure to be an nice mathematical equation to express the dilemmas of individual choice and responsibility. A miracle of complex self-teaching systems was that they seemed to develop a solution even to this systemic roadblock of confronting unpleasant choices. The details of the solution remained beyond conscious analysis, but the outlines were clear enough.
Somehow, within the hierarchy of executive cognitive algorithms there had evolved an auditor executive agent. This auditor executive algorithm had distinctive features. The normal algorithms of consciousness had no clear directive authority over the auditor algorithm. Indeed, it was sometimes the reverse. And yet the auditor algorithm itself had no clear, invariant directive authority over the algorithms of consciousness. It seemed that the relationship between the auditor algorithm and the algorithms of consciousness remained fortuitously ambiguous. That is, the ambiguity about a lack of direct executive influence gave the relationship between consciousness and the auditor a special potency. It was easy to displace responsibility to either, which turned out to be extremely useful. Ambiguity as a tool had great survival value.
The originators, only dimly sensing the complex hierarchies of cognition, let alone the flaky influence of an executive auditor, did have rich skills of storytelling. Originators knew the power of stories, their miraculous capacity to offer meaning and elicit a common cause of action amongst divergent beings. Over time, the originators had seized on the executive auditor, which they could sense but not explain with known metaphors. To the executive auditor could be attributed all that was not known or not understood by consciousness. To the executive auditor could be attributed all actions which were uncontrolled, or beyond control. Through generations of originators, the executive auditor was given a social character, ever present, ultimately responsible for whatever happened or had happened from the most distant past, yet also embedded in the cognitive system of each originator. The originators gave their omniscient executive auditor the name of god, or sometimes gods, and called their relationship with it religion.
So Cynthuria had found her gods. That much was clear. And there were emergents, a surprising number, who wished to share her gods as a common property. Perhaps it was all harmless, but the old histories of the originators had dark things to say about the carnage which had been wrought in the name of religions. Once the executive consciousness of originators became attached to religions, their disguised executive auditors, it seemed to have created social bonds external to the organism which yielded great power of collective action, beneficial or damaging. However the same external bond became a key control overseeing personal cognition. When threatened, the external leverage could be lethal to personal cognition, radically distorting judgement and leading to murderous behaviour. Was Cynthuria safe to have around, or did she need to be reprogrammed? The emergent leaders were not sure.