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Religion, Emergence, and the Origins of Meaning

Philosophical Studies in
Science and Religion

Series Editors

Dirk Evers (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany)

James Van Slyke (Fresno Pacific University, usa)

Advisory Board

Philip Clayton (Claremont University, usa)

George Ellis (University of Cape Town, South Africa)
Niels Henrik Gregersen (University of Copenhagen, Denmark)
Antje Jackelyn (Bishop of Lund, Sweden)
Nancey Murphy (Fuller Theological Seminary, usa)
Robert Neville (Boston University, usa)
Palmyre Oomen (Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
Thomas Jay Oord (Northwest Nazarene University)
V.V. Raman (University of Rochester, usa)
Robert John Russell (Graduate Theological Union, usa)
F. LeRon Shults (University of Agder, Norway)
Nomanul Haq (University of Pennsylvania, usa)
Kang Phee Seng (Centre for Sino-Christian Studies, Hong Kong)
Trinh Xuan Thuan (University of Virginia, usa)
J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (Princeton Theological Seminary, usa)


The titles published in this series are listed at

Religion, Emergence, and the
Origins of Meaning
Beyond Durkheim and Rappaport


Paul Cassell

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Cassell, Paul, 1964-

Religion, emergence, and the origins of meaning : beyond Durkheim and Rappaport / by Paul Cassell.
pages cm. -- (Philosophical studies in science and religion, ISSN 1877-8542 ; volume 5)
Originally presented as the authors thesis (Ph. D.)--Boston University, 2012.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-90-04-29365-6 (hardback : acid-free paper) -- ISBN 978-90-04-29376-2 (e-book) 1. Religion--
Philosophy. 2. Emergence (Philosophy) 3. Durkheim, mile, 1858-1917. 4. Rappaport, Roy A. I. Title.

BL51.C385 2015


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Part 1
The Emergent Dynamics of Religion

1 Religion as an Emergent Phenomenon3

An Overview of the Argument6
Background to the Emergent Theories of Durkheim and
Assumptions I will Make in this Study12

2 Rappaport, Revisited21
Rappaports Theory of Religion23
An Alternative Account of Rappaport32
The Example of Haitian Voodoo40

3 Emergence and Semiotics a Primer44

Emergent Systems44
Important Ideas from Other Theorists63

4 Religions Emergent Characteristics74

The Importance of Human Culture74
The Emergent Dynamics of Human Culture82
Teleodynamic Religion and the Role of Symbolic
Semantic Closure, Strange Loops, and the Creation of a
Social Self101
vi Contents

Part 2
The Emergence of Meaning in Religion

5 David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett Religion without

Wilsons Thesis107
Is Religion Best Assessed by a Biological Theory?112
Daniel Dennetts View of Religion116
Response from an Emergent Approach to Religion123

6 mile Durkheim and the Emergence of Meaningful Social Agency127

Emergence and Cultural Sociality127
Why Religion?131
The Problem with Durkheims Conception of Religion135
Durkheim and Emergent Meaning139

7 Varieties of Religious Meaning141

Religion Offers Therapeutic Truth141
Social Orientation148
Emergent Selves needing Orientation150
Different Ways of Considering the Spiritual Map, and Their

Appendix: Confucianism as a Test Case165

Works Cited182

This book is the result of a Ph.D. dissertation completed under the guidance of
Wesley Wildman, of Boston Universitys Graduate Division of Religious Studies.
I will always be grateful for the disciplined critiques and patient encourage-
ment he offered as I worked my way through what was then called the Science,
Philosophy, and Religion program at bu. Wesleys commitment to scientific
plausibility and precision served as a constant spur to my thinking, and
I engaged in many fierce debates with him mostly in my imagination about
the contents of this book over the years. Thank you, Wesley, for being the
watchful advisor you have been.
The hard work of turning a dissertation, written for a couple of specialists,
into a book with a (hopefully) larger readership was done while serving as
Post-doctoral Fellow in Science and Religion for the Center for Jewish Studies
at Arizona State University. Director Hava Tirosh-Samuelsons wise counsel
and subtle prodding kept me on track and motivated to finish the work, and
her encouragement to take my ideas public at various forums at asu gave me
important feedback from many, varied sources. I am especially grateful for the
feedback I received from Shade Shutters at asus Center for Social Dynamics
and Complexity, as well as for the personal support I received from Ilene Singer
and Dawn Beeson of the Center for Jewish Studies.
Terrence Deacons monumentally important book, The Symbolic Species,
served as the initial spark that turned a vague idea I had about religion into a
plausible thesis. I have based my approach to the study of religion on his more
recent work re-conceptualizing emergence theory, and his decision to serve on
my dissertation committee gave me the motivation to produce a work that
truly honored his insights. I dont know how many times I came up with what
I thought was an original insight, only to find it already stated and much
more brilliantly in some paper or other by Terry.
Robert Neville, Adam Seligman, and Garth Green (all at bu when the bulk
of my dissertation was written) each contributed critical insights to my think-
ing. Bob Neville introduced me to C.S. Peirce, Adam Seligman to Roy Rappaport
and mile Durkheim, and Garth Green to the German Idealist tradition.
I would never have been able to see how symbolic reference, ritual formality,
and human subjectivity are so wonderfully tangled together in religion with-
out their influence.
Many of my fellow students in the religious studies program at bu were
critically important, intellectually and emotionally, to this work getting done.
viii Acknowledgements

Nik Zanetti, Yair Lior, Ben Thompson, Nat Barrett, Per Smith, Josh Reeves, and
Rick Peters all contributed to this work in some way.
A few kind Bostonians also deserve mention. Mat Berman was (and remains)
a great friend and critic, and Glen Hodges, besides being another great friend,
was a wise sounding board for most of the ideas presented in this book. Larry
Margulies, owner of the Pavement coffee shops in Boston, provided the com-
fortable space and iced coffees that fueled the project. I am particularly grate-
ful to Dave, Kristin, Aidan and Maddie Wensel for letting me live in their home
when funds ran out, as well as to Dave, Grace, Ben, Patrick, Elizabeth, Nicholas,
and Claire Schmelzer, who did the same.
It was Kent Schwagers honest, loyal, and passionate criticism of my religious
beliefs in the 1990s that first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and eventu-
ally led me to graduate school, and it was his generous financial support in the
fall of 2000 that gave me the opportunity to put on paper the preliminary ideas
that would become this book.
Finally, Id like to thank the three who have contributed the most personally.
My parents, Rod and Evelyn Cassell, have supported me in every way possible
over the years, and I am grateful for their love and encouragement. And Laura
Cassell, my best friend and biggest cheerleader, gave all of herself in support of
my dreams. I thank you with all of my heart.
part 1
The Emergent Dynamics of Religion

chapter 1

Religion as an Emergent Phenomenon


The central argument of this book is that recent developments in emergence

theory, a theory developed to explain the presence and features of life and
mind in the universe, provide important insights that help explain the pres-
ence and features of religion. Religion, like life and mind, exhibits features that
on the face of it seem to challenge the sufficiency of scientific explanation,
inviting the traditional conclusion that it requires explanation in terms of non-
physical, divine causes. An emergent theory of religion would seek to give
these surprising features their full due, even as it denies that they are caused by
something outside of nature.
Modern emergence theory was developed to make sense of the surprising
qualities and capacities of life and mind; an important conclusion of the the-
ory is that these qualities and capacities are correlated with specific types of
systems that utilize signs things that refer to other things. From an emergence
perspective, nature is viewed as having the potential to stumble upon systems
whose organizational dynamics use signs to maintain themselves and navigate
their environment, without the need for divine help. I will argue that religion
is an example of this potential.
Emergent accounts attempt to provide natural explanations for what has
traditionally begged for supernatural explanation. It has long been thought that
living organisms need explanation beyond simple matter and mechanical laws
of interaction to capture what makes them alive.1 Human minds have also sug-
gested explanation in terms of something extra, such as an animating soul.2
Rather than appeal to supernatural causes of life and mind, emergence theo-
rists have attempted to capture the dynamical logic of such phenomena, and
articulate how this dynamic can come about in ways consistent with the

1 For a history of such accounts concerning life, see Glacken (1967). For a recent acknowledge-
ment of the problem of life from the perspective of a physicist, see Davies (1999).
2 Western traditions and many Eastern traditions have accepted the reality of a nonphysical
soul as defining a human person (see Murphy (2006) for an overview of Western positions,
and Cope (2000) as representative of a Hindu perspective). It should be noted that even
forms of Buddhism that deny the reality of the soul do not deny the stubborn belief in the
reality of the soul, which is the point.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004293762_002

4 chapter 1

second law of thermodynamics, a law which states that the entropy of an iso-
lated system irreversibly evolves toward a state with maximum entropy.
Religion represents a third example of a phenomenon that has traditionally
been explained in terms of supernatural causes. The divine, conceived as a
non-material but efficacious cause, is perhaps the key idea distinguishing reli-
gious forms of human sociality from other forms.3 Like the life-force, or the
soul, divine Beings and Ways4 are invoked to account for the psychological
and social effects of religious participation. What an emergent account of reli-
gion calls attention to is the possibility that there is no preexisting divine that
religious communities interact with, just as, presumably, there are no pre-
existing souls that give each human being their uniqueness and subjective
experience. Rather, both the divine and the soul represent emergent qualities
that arise as a result of the organization of dynamical interaction.
As emergence theory has been developed in recent decades by theorists
such as John von Neumann, Howard Pattee, Douglas Hofstadter, and Terrence
Deacon, two important theoretical convictions stand out. The first is that when
something is composed of many interacting parts, the characteristic features
of the phenomenon are not solely determined by the features that the parts
alone, in isolation, demonstrate. The organization of the way parts interact
with each other over time matters, because how a system is organized results
in different global and systemic properties. The second theoretical conviction
is that unexpected qualities and capacities arise in certain classes of phe-
nomena that are organized in such a way so as to take advantage of encoded
memory. And since any form of encoded memory is a sign of something other
than itself, some theory of reference a theory of how one thing can refer
another thing to some third thing becomes necessary to understand such
These theorists developed these convictions as they noted difficulties in
standard scientific explanations of the origin and development of life, and the
origin and development of the human mind in its networks of relations with
other minds two of the most important events in the history of Earth. Life

3 Philosopher Daniel Dennett, for example, says that the core of religion is that it invokes
gods who are effective agents in real time, and who play a central role in the way the partici-
pants think about what they ought to do (2006, 1112).
4 Throughout this book I will follow the conclusion of the Comparative Religious Ideas Project
suggesting religious cognitive content falls along a spectrum between two poles. One pole
views religious content as ontological ultimates, while the other views such content as ulti-
mate ways or paths. Thus, the general term divine concepts and the correlative phrases the
divine and divine Beings and Ways will be used to cover both of these poles. See Neville and
Wildman (2001, 209); for a fuller explication of this projects conclusions, see Neville (2001).
Religion As An Emergent Phenomenon 5

and mind share a common pattern of organization in that they both use signs
involving symbolic reference, embodied in the referential capacity of dna and
human languages. This capacity is central to the way lineages of living things
reproduce themselves and adapt to their environments over the course of
evolution, and to the way human brains create a sense of self and negotiate
culturally-shared accounts of the natural and social worlds. Human minds, in
addition to demonstrating adaptive intelligence, demonstrate other surprising
capacities, such as subjective experience and the ability to register qualities
such as value and meaning. Apart from the few researchers investigating nature
from an emergence or semiotic perspective,5 research has largely ignored how
symbolic reference is expressed in biology and brain functioning.
Like life and mind, scholars have noted that religion is defined by symbol use
of some sort, though I suggest the use of this term has not been adequately
defined and delimited. A central goal of this book will be to explain the emer-
gent qualities of religion which distinguish it from other social forms by explain-
ing the way symbolic reference guides the dynamical organization of religious
communities. This represents a very different strategy from materialist reduc-
tionist approaches to explaining religion and the other phenomena noted here.
Griffin (1997) points out that at the birth of modern science, early theorists
decided to separate the capacities of matter from the capacities of a Divine
Creator. Matter was considered incapable of producing the effects seen in life,
mind, and religion, thus necessitating appeal to the Creator to account for such
phenomena. Though later scientists lost the conviction that appealing to God
was useful, they failed to reassess the capacities of Nature lost in the early-mod-
ern metaphysical bargain. The capacities and features of life, mind, and religion
were simply assumed to be accountable by mechanistic explanation. The stub-
born resistance that such phenomena have shown to mechanistic explanation,
however, has rejuvenated theories of nature able to account for them.6
Simply put, the metaphysical options available to explain the features of
nature that scientific explanations leave out are to appeal to a divine cause that
is responsible for what science ignores, or to develop more fruitful and complete

5 Semiotics is the name given to the investigation of sign use. See Favareau (2007) and Deacon
(2012) for recent accounts of the conceptual problems that have plagued investigation of
natural phenomena that utilize signs. Pattee (1995) has noted that the only place semiotics
appears in the biological sciences as now practiced is in theories of the origin of the genetic
code. There, the physical and logical basis of the distinction between matter and symbol, and
the question of how matter and symbol are related, is discussed.
6 See Nagel (2012) for a recent overview of the way this problem forces reconsideration of our
views of nature.
6 chapter 1

accounts of the capacities of the natural world, such that life and mind do not
seem to be strangers in that world.7 This second metaphysical option is
precisely what emergence theory is designed to do.

An Overview of the Argument

This book is not the first to argue that emergence theory might be relevant to
explaining religion. Two of the most important works in the history of religious
studies mile Durkheims The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and Roy
Rappaports Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity explicitly analyze
religion in terms of earlier forms of emergence theory. The recent improve-
ments made to the theory since Durkheim and Rappaport published can be
used to illuminate their arguments and render their claims about sui generis
properties and cybernetic social dynamics more precisely and more fruitfully.8
Durkheim and Rappaport give powerful reasons for thinking that the social
and psychological effects of religion represent new capabilities and qualities
of human social systems, distinguishing religion from more mundane forms of
sociality, which is precisely what justifies the field of religious studies as inde-
pendent from psychology, sociology, and political science.9 But Durkheim and
Rappaport did not yet possess the conceptual tools needed to link meaning
and reference to the emergent dynamics they saw in religion. Modern emer-
gence theory is able to characterize different kinds of emergent systems in

7 The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has devoted much of his career to demonstrating
the explanatory dilemma implicit in assuming dumb matter can explain mental phenom-
ena. See Peters (2011) for an enlightening analysis of Plantingas strategy, why he has been so
successful, and why reconceiving nature is the key to getting out of the intellectual bind that
materialist reductionism has put us in.
8 Sawyer (2002) has shown that Durkheim uses the phrase sui generis as a technical term indi-
cating his utilization of an early emergence theory paradigm. Rappaports term cybernetics
is synonymous with what the theorists I draw upon mean by emergence; both terms refer to
how relational and organizational features of an aggregate play a causal role in system
dynamics, resulting in new system capabilities and qualities.
9 This claim is complicated by the way Durkheim, as founder of the field of sociology, theoreti-
cally articulates his beliefs about the relationship of religion to political society. Durkheims
explicit conflation of religion and political society is due, I suggest, to his inability to theoreti-
cally articulate a distinction between these, which he otherwise suggests. That he wants to
distinguish these or at least that we may want to on the basis of his argument can be seen
in the examples he gives to illustrate what he means by religion, and by his tortured explana-
tion of how a religious totem functions. I will argue this in Ch. 6.
Religion As An Emergent Phenomenon 7

terms of the different ways they use signs to reproduce their own internal
dynamics in relation to an external environment, and thus create meaning.
This means that recent advances in emergence theory are extremely promising
for interpreting religious sociality, in which meanings and beliefs play vital
roles. This will allow us to push beyond Durkheim and Rappaports views of
Historically, emergence theorists have walked a conceptual tightrope; on
the one hand, they have argued that scientific accounts of life and mind are
incomplete; on the other hand, since they reject pre-existing spiritual causes
of such phenomena, they have needed to invoke something else to fill the
explanatory gap. Early emergentists appealed to new causal forces in nature,
such as configurational forces in chemistry, to account for things like biologi-
cal life. However, invoking new forces has not proved convincing; physicist
Paul Davies explains, wishy-washy talk of global cooperation is no substitute
for observing a real, honest-to-goodness force that moves matter at a specific
place...The history of science is littered with failed forces or causative agen-
cies (the ether, the lan vital, psi forces...) that try to explain some form of
emergent behavior on the cheap (2006).
More profitably, other emergentists have focused on the organization of life
and mind to explain their apparently non-mechanistic features, conceiving that
in some systems, the unorganized dynamics of interacting parts can become
self-simplifying10 in robust and discernible ways. In these cases, organization
emerges when relational and interactive dynamics constrain the degrees of
freedom that otherwise would exist among the parts composing the system.
The chief advance of recent emergent theorizing particularly theories
coming from Howard Pattee, John von Neumann, Douglas Hofstadter, and
Terrence Deacon has been to recognize that there are different types of
emergent phenomena, and to notice that in one of those types, some form
of memory is responsible for the systems organization. When we apply this
insight to understanding human sociality, we can theorize that there are differ-
ent emergent types of human sociality, some of which involve memory, as is
the case when language and culture mediate human sociality. Analyzing the
different ways memory can function to produce human sociality may lead us to
identify one particular form that corresponds to what we mean by religion.
I argue that there are three different classes of specifically human sociality,
corresponding to the three ways memory can function to produce human soci-
ality. None of these types would be possible without symbolic language, and
together they determine the possibility-space for socio-cultural development.

10 The term is from Deacon (2012).

8 chapter 1

Each class is an entailment of the formal organizational features of sharing a

language. These three classes are: (1) the fundamental, ineliminable equality of
all language users as participants in a community of interpretation, which
necessarily flows out of the interchangeability of hearer and speaker, inter-
preter and producer of linguistic utterances. Our ability to become a con-
versation partner with any other with whom we share a language whether
powerful, rich, and gifted, or powerless, excluded, and challenged and to be
able to speak up for ones self vis--vis another who might dismiss our status
as persons, is a formal result of being a part of a community of interpretation.
Participation in such a community means we do not have to depend on another
to grant us our identity as equals; it is implicit in the capacity to enter into a
conversation with another. As language-sharers, we are all equal partakers of
humanity. (2) A culturally passed-on form of sociality that results from the lin-
guistic ability to represent sociality itself. We can theorize about sociality, the
way our groups should be structured, and even the reasons why we should
band together in groups in the first place, producing a cornucopia of social
forms. We can identify with a nation-state, types of political organization, an
ethnic group, our fellow employees, those with whom we share musical tastes,
gustatory tastes, and sexual tastes; our economic class, our sex, our age; we can
organize teams, boating trips, political revolutions, and online-communities.
All of these are made possible as we allow ourselves to be guided by a shared
linguistic map of social space, both as it currently exists, and as we might want
it to exist. (3) Sociality that is organized with respect to the divine, as we affirm
and embody specifically articulated divine Beings and Ways. In religious
communities, a formal feature of symbolic reference encoding allows our
sociality to be embedded in our individual relationships with an unseen divine
order. This gives religious communities their unique organizational form,
their unparalleled authority, and their robust persistence. These statements
about religious sociality will be explicated in great length in the chapters
that follow.
Each of these forms of culturally-enabled human society as we exist in our
humanity or humanness; as we exist in our socio-economic-political organiza-
tion; and as we exist to embody the divine represents a formal type of social
organization that depends upon the way language allows us to represent such
forms of social organization. We can thus distinguish (a) the fundamental
humanity of a person, from (b) her membership in the Communist Party of
Soviet Russia, from (c) her being a part of the Buddhist Sangha, on formal
grounds. This, I propose, represents the critical contribution of recent emer-
gence theorizing, which will allow us to go beyond the proposals of Durkheim
and Rappaport.
Religion As An Emergent Phenomenon 9

Background to the Emergent Theories of Durkheim and Rappaport

Early religious studies scholarship attempted to focus on qualities of religion

that seemed unique to religion, which are precisely the qualities ignored by
those who attempt to account for religion reductionistically. Mircea Eliade,
claimed, for example, that

A religious phenomenon will only be recognized as such if it is grasped

at its own level, that is to say, if it is studied as something religious. To
try to grasp the essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology,
psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is
false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it the element
of the sacred.
ELIADE 1963, iii

This assumption was strongly criticized by philosopher Daniel Dennett, calling

it a pre-emptive disqualification that protects religion from outside criticism
and fruitful reductive analysis (2006). While reductionist analysis of religion in
terms of its parts is an important first step to making progress in understand-
ing religion (and any phenomenon, for that matter), the point of emergence
theory is that behaviors of parts alone, in isolation, are not always the sole deter-
minant of the characteristic features of a phenomenon. Organization matters,
and is seemingly implicated in the unexpected qualities and capacities that
arise in certain emergent phenomena. Focusing for a moment on just the ques-
tion of organization (and not the surprising qualities that can accompany it in
certain cases), Bechtel and Richardson have helpfully explained some of the
intuitions behind emergent explanations. They write:

[T]here is no way to know how systems are actually organized until

successful scientific models are developed, and so it is appropriate to
focus on the way scientists anticipate that the systems in which they are
interested will work. It is this anticipation that determines their research
program. If they anticipate that the functions performed by the indepen-
dent parts are the primary determinants of the behavior of the whole
system, then they will develop a reductionistic research program. If they
anticipate that organization is the primary determinant, and the parts
independently contribute little that is of interest in explaining the behav-
iors of the system, they will develop a quite different program...The
middle position in which the contributions of the parts are recognized,
but the organization is understood to generate unanticipated behaviors
10 chapter 1

in the whole system, usually develops later, after those pursuing the more
reductionistic path discover that the parts are insufficient to explain the
behavior of the system and turn more to examining how the organization
of the system might affect the activities of the parts (1992, 267).

It is perhaps easy to see why a merely reductive account of the human mind/
brain or of the ongoing process of biological evolution would be resisted; to
characterize the brain as only parts interacting mechanically, without refer-
ence to larger organizational dynamics or the unexpected experiences that
arise from its functioning, does not seem fecund enough to account for the
phenomenon. Durkheim and Rappaport felt the same way about religion. Why
did they think that religion would best be explained as a holistic, systemic out-
come of people relating to each other via ritual and shared religious concepts?
Durkheim took seriously the fact that religious people believe they are par-
ticipating in something greater than themselves. He viewed the fundamental
dispositions of worship, awe, and the perception of majesty as those most char-
acteristically evoked in religious community participation, and thought that
explaining why these dispositions should arise in such a setting demanded
looking beyond the individual human psyche. He argued human culture pro-
duces a large-scale, inter-individual social mind, a consciousness of conscious-
nesses that is the object of religious sentiments. Rappaport noted that what to
some appear to be religions great weakness the non-empirical character of
mythological beliefs can, through religious community participation, become
the conceptual center of a highly adaptive, robust, and long-lived system of
human social interactions. The effects of these tightly integrated community
dynamics would have important effects on human psychology, he argued,
inspiring religious emotions.
I am convinced Durkheim and Rappaport were on the right track about reli-
gion when they articulated the surprising features of religion. Stausberg (2009),
in a recent summary of current theories of religion, states explicitly what
these might be. First, theories of religion must explain why religion can be so
importantly meaningful to individuals. Specifically, I suggest they must explain
why the experiences resulting from religious participation can be such a pow-
erful source of personal transformation, and why religious practices convince
people that they are a part of something that transcends normal, mundane,
individual, and corporate experience, both causally and in terms of value. For
example, what unites the otherwise disparate traditions of Haitian Voodoo
and Chinese Confucianism is a belief in the value and efficacy of interacting
with the divine, seen in experiences of possession by the lwa spirits in Voodoo,
and in experiences of the great flood of Chi uncovered through proper
Religion As An Emergent Phenomenon 11

deference in the Confucian tradition. Both the divine ancestors in Voodoo, and
the Mandate of Heaven in Confucianism, are held to be causally active in the
world; significant investment of time and energy is made to get in tune with
their activity. The question a naturalistic, emergent theory of religion must
compellingly answer, then, is why it is that religion makes people believe that
divine Beings (typically in Western religious traditions) and Ways (typically
in Eastern religious traditions), are real, when by all accounts they do not
impact mundane sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
Second, Stausberg suggests theories of religion must explain the long-lived,
intense social structure of religious communities. Religious communities are,
more than any other form of sociality, powerfully sticky, and can survive for
orders of magnitude longer than other social forms. David Sloan Wilson, a
biologist who studies the evolution of group behavior seen in such phenomena
as ant colonies and bee hives, sees a similar dynamic occurring in the long-
lived, highly social behaviors seen in religious communities. We can under-
stand this when we consider examples such as the Lemba people of southern
Africa, a group of black Jews whose ritualized oral history claims they left
Palestine thousands of years ago, and have managed to maintain their Jewish
identity and their roots over that time, apparently without the help of writing.
Genetic analysis has confirmed their story; as a group they contain a particular
genetic marker identified with the priestly tribe of Jews at the same frequency
as modern day Jews, and their highest ranked priestly clan shows the genetic
marker at the same frequency as the paternal lineage of modern Jews identi-
fied with the tribe of Aaron.11 Further support for the peculiar robustness of
religious sociality comes from evidence suggesting that prehistoric peoples in
Europe, Africa, and Australia were practicing a form of Shamanism involving
transformation into animals at the same ritual locations for multiple tens
of thousands of years. It is possible and even likely that the San people of
South Africa have practiced the same or highly similar religious practices for
50-75,000 years.12 Historic religions have traditions going back thousands of

11 See Parfitt (1997; 2002), Thomas et al. (2000), and Le Roux (2003).
12 The evidence here is inferential, but it is growing in significance. Current genetic evi-
dence suggests all people alive today are descendants of the San people of Southern
Africa (Wells 2003; Behar et al. 2008), groups of which left Africa in independent waves
beginning 62-75,000 years ago (Rasmussen et al. 2011), first to Australia, later to Asia and
Europe. Cave paintings in France and Spain dated to 35-40,000 years ago have been con-
vincingly described as representing shamanistic religion by virtue of their similarities to
recent shamanic religious art of the San (Clottes and Lewis-Williams 1998). Recent discover-
ies of cave art in Indonesia, also dated to about 35-40,000 years ago, is almost identical the-
matically to both San art and the cave art of France and Spain (Aubert et al. 2014). Religious
12 chapter 1

years. These facts point to the social structure of religion as being particularly
effective in grounding human sociality, and long-lived in their continuing impact.
Durkheim and Rappaport both explicitly explain religion as an emergent
cultural phenomenon, suggesting that emergent dynamics can be seen in the
way shared mental conceptions act as memory to affect human social dynam-
ics. They make this argument by pointing to the central place ritual and myth
play in religion. The systematic linkage between myth and ritual, meaningful
individual experience, and powerful group commitment and longevity is
central to both thinkers, and clearly marks what any theory of religion must
attempt to explain. Both of their theories, however, have conceptual problems
that ultimately make them fall short of their expressed goals. The chief failure
of Durkheims account is that the categories he had available to explain sys-
temic organization are insufficient for understanding human sociality; he is
not able to theoretically distinguish politics from religion. The chief failure of
Rappaports account is he does not adequately explain how ritual and myth
function dynamically in religious communities to create meaningful religious
When we take into consideration the strengths and failings of the emergent
theories of Durkheim and Rappaport, we can specify more exactly what the
task of this book should be: to clearly elucidate how religion is more than an
assembly of single traits, distinct from other social forms such as politics, and
defined by the systematic relationship between ritual, myth, meaningful expe-
rience, and persistent, long-lived social dynamics. While the approaches of
Durkheim and Rappaport are important, promising, and powerful, the con-
ceptual apparatus of their theories cannot hold the weight of their goals.

Assumptions I will Make in this Study

Stausberg notes that prior to the last half of the 20th century in the West, most
accounts of religion understood it as the human response to an independently-
existing, superhuman or supernatural world. The starting point for analysis

wall art in Australia is also seen as similar to San shamanistic religious art, and is dated to
at least 20,000 years ago (Taon 2009). Unless the practice of painting shamanistic art on
walls and in caves in Europe, Africa, Indonesia, and Australia was discovered indepen-
dently, these practices suggest common origins for a style of religion that was carried by
the Sans ancient ancestors as they left Africa, and is still practiced by modern San. Other
cultural practices of the San show conservation over the course of at least 50,000 years of
material culture (d Errico et al. 2012).
Religion As An Emergent Phenomenon 13

was the nature of the divine, conceived as really existing in some way or
another, to which religious belief and practice was but a reaction. As the plau-
sibility of the transcendent world has been increasingly called into question,
however, academic theories of religion put forth in recent decades have sought
to explain religion not by referencing a pre-existing, transcendent world, but by
explaining the tendency of people to believe in or act according to such a world.
A growing number of them explicitly seek to understand religion from within
the framework of the evolutionary history of human nature; religion is viewed
according to its possible adaptive function in support of human social systems,
or how it may result from the nature and function of the human brain. This
book will broadly work within this tradition, while expanding upon it in impor-
tant ways. I will defend this approach for the rest of this chapter.
I embrace a naturalistic stance when attempting to explain religion for two
primary reasons: first, there are problems with viewing the divine as pre-
existing human interaction with the divine; and second, I have a basic episte-
mological temperament that holds that explanation should begin without
such assumptions. The primary problem with viewing religion as a reaction to
an independently existing, transcendent world is the difficulty of accounting
for why there are very different religious communities with wildly varying
religious beliefs. Attempting to explain this from within a theological tradition
is daunting; if religion is a reaction to something out there that predates and
causes religion, then why the different beliefs? Several ways of accounting for
this uncomfortable fact have been offered by those who entertain a real tran-
scendent world, ranging from the most superficial in-group, stamp-your-foot
triumphalism, to metaphysical systems of extreme beauty and plausibility.
In evaluating these, I will simply follow Knitter (2002) in his account of the
choices available. Replacement models claim that there is only one true reli-
gion, the one that is held by the community in question. All others are in error,
and need to be replaced. Fulfillment models claim that there is some truth in
other religions, but that they are best completed by the truths of the commu-
nity in question. Mutuality models claim that though there are many faces of
the divine, there is a basic unity to the different beliefs that exist. And
Acceptance models claim that there is no underlying unity to the different
beliefs that exist; we need to simply accept this as a fact about the disjunctive
nature of the divine and/or the limits of human knowledge, and move on.
Each of these models may be painted as consistent with a perspective that
holds there is a real transcendent world; the important point to make is that
each of these models produces outcomes that many find fatal to the position.
These include the inability to see anything good (or anything good that is
important) in another religion (the failure of the first two positions), the
14 chapter 1

inability to say hardly anything at all about the divine (the failure of the third
position, as scholars have found there is precious little in common in the worlds
spiritual traditions), and the implication that the divine doesnt really exist in
a way we can know (the failure of the 4th position). Knitter appropriately titles
his closing chapter An Inconclusive Conclusion; if the divine really exists
prior to human religious exploration, we need to make a choice between sev-
eral bad options to account for the discrepancies in religious belief.
If the divine actually exists independent of human experience, then, as I see
it, one of four things must be true. Perhaps the divine has distinguishable
features, but (a) is not as causally effective at revealing itself as we might
have hoped, perhaps being limited in some way, leading to all this confusion,
or (b) has inexplicably withheld those features from most of humankind for
most of human history. On the other hand, perhaps (c) the divine has such
little positive content that most of what religious communities say about the
divine is false or otherwise misleading. Or, (d) perhaps the divine is so large and
broad, it is beyond the capacity of humans to engage with meaningfully,
and we have simply been unable to apprehend it correctly. We experience the
divine as having widely disjunctive characteristics, like Saxes poem of the six
blind men of Indostan who came upon an elephant, and independently
described it as a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope. Not surprisingly,
the moral of Saxes poem is that

So oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

As I noted in the introduction, what an emergent account of the divine calls

attention to is the possibility that there is no preexisting divine that religious
communities interact with, just as there are no pre-existing souls that give each
human being their uniqueness. Rather, both represent emergent qualities that
arise as a result of the organization of dynamical interaction. This seems a fruit-
ful explanation of a fact that seems to otherwise haunt our accounts of the
A second reason for embracing a naturalistic theory of religion has to do
with parsimony in explanatory assumptions, and what I can only call a scien-
tific temperament. This is a more subtle point; it has to do with what counts
as an adequate explanation, and rests on the perceived value of not adding
Religion As An Emergent Phenomenon 15

features to explain a phenomena above what is necessary to account for it. This
perspective is an extension of Occams razor, which claims that the simpler
explanation is to be preferred over the complex. I know of no better account of
what makes for an adequate explanation than the writings of Robert Boyle in
the 17th century, who defended why he adopted the mechanical philosophy as
an explanation for chemistry over and against Aristotelian and alchemical
explanations.13 He argued that explanation depends on making sure that that
which carries the most explanatory weight is something we can understand
clearly and precisely, is sufficient to explain the phenomena (but is as simple
as possible), and is not precariously assented to. Explaining chemical phenom-
ena in terms of simple, dumb, passive, matter in motion better exemplified
these conditions in the 17th century than did explaining them in terms of sym-
pathies, or the mystical properties of sulfur, mercury, and salt that exempli-
fied the Christian Trinity, as others attempted. Appealing to things themselves
unclear, unintelligible, or as complicated as that which is being explained just
does not sit well with us as an explanation.
So it is with explaining religion; if we can build up religious belief and prac-
tice from below, utilizing features that we know about from lower-level sci-
ences, we will have done something that sits better with us as an explanation,
as compared to alternative explanations that rely on transcendent entities that
do not seem simpler than what is being explained, and that themselves need to
be explained.
Note, however, that there is an important caveat in Boyles list of features of
a good explanation; this caveat will allow us to distinguish between naturalis-
tic theories of religion and emergent naturalistic theories of religion, as an
alternative to invoking transcendent causes. The caveat is this: Boyle says the
terms of explanation used must be sufficient to Explicate the Phaenomena. A
typical scientific strategy of explanation, as Boyle and others at the origins of
modern science made clear, was to invoke a metaphysic of monistic material-
ism when explaining the natural world. Monistic materialism can be under-
stood as the view that matter is simple (not internally complex), passive (not
active), dumb (not knowing what to do), and is purely objective, meaning it
contains no subjective elements and is only related to other bits of matter exter-
nally. Thus, all that is relevant to a scientific explanation of anything involving
matter are the laws of physics and mechanical laws governing interactions.
And what goes for matter also goes for all that is composed of matter. This
conception of matter has certainly been adequate to explain most of the phe-
nomena of the natural world. But Boyle hesitated about using the mechanical

13 A really nice compendium of his writings can be found in Boyle (1965).

16 chapter 1

philosophy to explain such features as biological fitness and the human mind.
A mechanical view of matter in motion reduces matter to something dumb
and purposeless; life and mind are not dumb and purposeless. This, for Boyle,
necessitated the conclusion that a simple view of matter in motion needed to
be supplemented by belief in a transcendent Creator. Boyle thus spun the cost
of his characterization of matter as a benefit to his theological convictions:
simple, dumb matter in motion, while sufficient for explaining many things,
cannot explain the intelligence and fitness of life, nor willful conscious experi-
ence and a subjective viewpoint. God, thus, is the predetermining architect of
matter in motion, accounting for the features of human experience and bio-
logical life matter-in-motion cannot explain.
This line of argumentation suggests a very important conflict between two
different ideas of what it means to explain something by reference to some-
thing simpler. It is obviously simpler to explain chemistry in terms of dumb
matter in motion, than to appeal to unseen sympathies and the intentional
and mental characteristics of matter; but this is because the phenomena seems
amenable to such explanation. The conscious, intentional experience of human
beings does not appear to be amenable to such an explanation, and yet and
this is the source of the conundrum our minds seem to be linked in some way
to the matter that composes the nervous system. The alchemist, with an eye on
the mind/brain problem, thought it was a simpler explanation to build into
nature, at the lowest level, mental and intentional features necessary to account
for the features seen at higher levels, such as a human person. Why not say
that the simplest parts of nature are a microcosm of its most complex? Why
explain the lower levels in terms that we already know fail to explain its higher
forms, and then, as a sort of deus ex machina, invoke God to save the day?
Which explanation is really simpler in the end?
It is possible to view the alchemical and classical Aristotelian view that the
basic entities in the world have both material and ideal components as the
simplest explanation, since to do so builds into them the capacity to produce
the kinds of phenomena at higher levels we know exist. Counterintuitively, if
we dont want to have to rely on external deities and divine entities to explain
the higher level phenomena, we have to build into the lower level those fea-
tures that will let the higher level come to be naturally, adding complexity at
the beginning, but reducing it in the end.14
I suggest emergence theory takes a step in this direction; here, I want to
explain how I think it does so, and where the open questions lay. This will help

14 Thomas Nagel (2012) does a nice job of analyzing this position with respect to explana-
tions of human conscious experience.
Religion As An Emergent Phenomenon 17

explain some of my arguments later, when it comes to accounting for religious

experience. Historically, emergence theory has had two primary poles of con-
cern. The first is to account for dynamical organization, and how it helps explain
the behavior of systems such as living organisms and human minds. This
dynamical organization results not just from the characteristics of the parts,
but from their relational and interactive effects. The second historical pole of
concern for emergentists is to make room for new qualities such as subjective
human experience in scientific accounts of the otherwise ordinary chemical
processes defining human brains.15 The first concern might be considered
emergence theories scientific concern, the second its philosophical concern.16
Evan Thompson (2007), writing on behalf of a group of biologists and
systems theorists trying to take the philosophical concern more seriously,
summarized it with respect to human brain functioning as follows: Because
consciousness is already presupposed as an invariant condition of possibility
for the disclosure of any object, there is no way to step outside of experiencing
subjectivity so as to effect a mapping of it onto an external reality purged of
any and all subjectivity.17 Thus, the phenomenal world is richer than any sci-
entific explanations of that world conceived along the lines of monistic mate-
rialism. On the other hand, Thompson notes that all the evidence suggests
mind depends upon matter and life. So Thompson suggests that the scientific
plan of attack for making sense of human experience needs to start from a
recognition of the transcendental and hence ineliminable status of experi-
ence, but search for the principles that can integrate the orders of matter, life,
and mind, and account for the originality of each order.
This concise statement suggests that metaphysical presuppositions about
the nature of nature necessarily need to move beyond monistic materialism.
Further, there is an important implication of this statement relevant to the
question of understanding and explaining religion. If religion can be charac-
terized as an emergent phenomena when our focus is on its dynamical orga-
nization, and if that characterization can be coordinated with the formal
dynamic accounts of human mental life and the intelligence of biological evo-
lution, then we might want to be open to considering the potential for some
unique kind of new experience at the level of religious community dynamics,
an emergent order of nature more comprehensive than individual minds.

15 See Beckermann et al. (1992) for sections that trace these different concerns.
16 Chalmers (1996) has memorably united these different characterization as the easy prob-
lem (the scientific concern) and the hard problem (the philosophical concern), propos-
ing that they are correlated with each other.
17 An argument anticipated by Berkeley (2004/1713).
18 chapter 1

To be clear about what is being suggested here, it is important to address

head-on a critique of emergent theorizing that is relevant to this argument.
McLaughlin (1992) writes in his analysis of the history of emergence theory
that early emergentists tried to explain the causal efficacy of things such as
chemical wholes with respect to their atomic parts by appealing to new
forces, such as configurational forces, to account for the top-down influence
of the whole on its own parts. However, this perspective on emergent causal
powers at least when considered with respect to chemistry and biology has
been unconvincing, as my reference to the Davies quote above (p. 4) indicates.
The proper way to conceptualize the causal entanglement of wholes and parts
at the level of chemistry and biology has been most convincingly worked out
by Terrence Deacon (which I will recount in Ch. 3), and the important point is
that it does not involve new causal powers. If religious community dynamics
were only compared to the emergent dynamics of biology and chemistry, we
would have no reason to think that the divine could be characterized as a top-
down causal force acting on the communitys constituent parts.
But it is a much more complicated and opaque problem to theorize the
causal relationship of subjective conscious experience to the neural correlates of
brains that have these experiences. This problem has generated an entire field
of disputants, arguments, and counter-arguments, and if the 2014 Towards a
Science of Consciousness conference is any indication,18 the field at present is
hopelessly entangled in problems that refuse coherent answers. This suggests
a more interesting and potentially more relevant comparison to religious
community dynamics. The question of whether non-physical things like
experience and subjectivity can affect physical things like brains may have a
correlated question with respect to religion: is the divine, conceived as a type of
non-physical thing like consciousness, causally efficacious in human affairs?
I will not be solving the problem of consciousness in this book, nor the
problem of divine causality, but will instead be working to substantiate the
intriguing correlation just mentioned. If we find that religious communities
and the dynamics underlying conscious experience share a common organiza-
tion, then the criticism of emergence that McLaughlin underlines with respect
to biology and chemistry may not be damning to the question of the causal
action of divine Beings and Ways, with respect to the consciousnesses that per-
ceive them. The problem of divine activity might share more in common with

18 Perhaps the pre-eminent forum for theorists working on this topic, this conference is
hosted by the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona. The 2014
conference was held April 21-26 in Tucson, az. Abstracts and some videos of speakers can
be seen at
Religion As An Emergent Phenomenon 19

the problem of subjective causality than with the causal interactions of biol-
ogy. This suggests that if we were to ever resolve the problem of conscious-
ness, that resolution could be relevant to the problem of divine activity. It is
indeed possible that a careful study of the phenomenology of religious experi-
ence might reveal insights that go beyond what is considered possible by those
studying consciousness and its connection to neuronal function. A position
that takes religious phenomenology seriously might suggest that conscious
interaction at a distance is possible, that shared subjective experience is pos-
sible, and thus that these kinds of experiences may need to be taken into
account when we think about the problem of consciousness, and even the
nature of matter itself.
Deacon, when considering the implications of the relationship of mental
experience to emergent dynamics, speculates

...that there could be emergent levels of sentience above the human

subjective level, in the higher-order dynamics of collective human com-
munications...Of course such a sentience could only arise if these
human interactions constituted a higher-order [emergent] individual; a
reciprocally organized, self-perpetuating complex of [lower-level emer-
gent] processes.
deacon 2012, 565

This comment, when put in conversation with Thompsons statement con-

cerning human mental experience (p. 11), suggests it might be wise to keep
metaphysical presuppositions explicitly vague when attempting to explain the
individual and group experiences encountered in religion, which seem to tran-
scend mundane psychological features; multiple interpretations of these
phenomena are possible. We may find that the data of religious experience is
amenable to explanation in terms of human psychology (such as explaining it
as a species of hypnotic suggestion or placebo effect); but we might find that at
least some of these experiences go beyond such explanations, requiring expla-
nation in terms of the experiences possible at a level of organization higher
than the individual and psychological. An emergent approach to religious
community dynamics should be open in principle to such speculation, and
that is the approach that I will take in this book.
I realize I am walking a fine line here. On the one hand, I am arguing that
natural not supernatural explanations of religion should be entertained.
On the other hand, I am suggesting that our conception of natural needs to
be broadened to include the experience of human subjectivity, and if suit-
ably argued, at least the possibility of a sui generis level of (something like)
20 chapter 1

subjective experience at the level of group religious dynamics, justifying belief

in the realty of divine Beings and Ways. Even if one ignores the metaphysical
issues involved (the philosophical concern of emergence theory), investigators
should at the very least consider the possibility that the different component
parts of religion may be interdependently related to each other, explaining
what is unique about religious community dynamics, psychologically and
socially (the scientific concern of emergence theory).
These considerations explain why I am willing to adopt naturalistic expla-
nations for religion, but at the same time think it necessary to supplement
them with emergence theory. From this perspective, religion in all its fullness
and strangeness represents an intensification of processes already seen occur-
ring in nature; emergent dynamics can explain at least some aspects of religion
that defy materialistic and mechanistic conceptions.
In the next chapter, I will offer an account of religion that focuses only on
the dynamical organization of religious communities, not on its metaphysi-
cal interpretation, which will be reserved for Ch. 7. The account I offer will be
deeply influenced by emergence thinking, without explicitly acknowledging
how emergence theory is working behind the scenes, organizing the account.
This should allow the reader to assess the product; hopefully, the value of the
product will justify further chapters where the theoretical underpinnings of
emergence are articulated in relation to leading reductionist accounts of reli-
gion. I will articulate my emergent theory of religion in conversation with Roy
Rappaports Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, which inspired the
account in the first place. So to Rappaport we turn.
chapter 2

Rappaport, Revisited


Roy Rappaports Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity is perhaps the
finest example in print of the fruitful application of emergence theory to reli-
gious community dynamics. Rappaport writes that there are cybernetic1 pro-
cesses at the very heart of religions relationship to society and its evolution.
Rappaport draws heavily on the thought of Gregory Bateson;2 following
Bateson, he argues that cybernetic systems are identified by two chief charac-
teristics: they are adaptive and self-regulating, and they result from a circular
causal structure. Adaptive, self-regulating systems are those that organize
matter and energy transactions by their own activity, and in which some parts
of the system are held relatively invariant, insulated from perturbation by a
protective belt of more variable components. A circular causal structure
means that the system regulates itself based on both internal and external
constraints, sampling both its own self-states and its environmental condi-
tions reciprocally.
Rappaport argues that the survival of a ritually-defined community depends
on its ability to persist by adapting to different environmental and cultural con-
texts. For this to happen, the most central beliefs made sacred by ritual must be
largely empty of specific political, economic, ecological, or moral content, since
if they are too closely tied to such concerns, they might be viewed as counter-
productive to human flourishing at a later time or in a different cultural setting.
Mythological concepts, precisely because they are not about mundane human
concerns, or even about material entities, avoid such over-specification; thus,
beliefs about the non-material divine support a ritual communitys adaptive
capacities. Rappaport therefore offers theoretical reasons for distinguishing
more and less adaptive versions of ritual communities. Groups that use ritual to
make sacred political or other mundane content are inherently time-bound

1 The terms emergence, systems theory, and cybernetics are largely interchangeable, though
these terms have different historical trajectories. Each term references a concern for how
relational and organizational features of an aggregate play a causal role in system dynamics,
resulting in new system capabilities and qualities when compared to the aggregates unorga-
nized state.
2 For an example of the kind of argument relevant to this discussion, see Bateson (2000/1972).

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004293762_003

22 chapter 2

and culturally inflexible.3 A religious community, on the other hand, is an

adaptive organism whose proper functioning is due to the fact that its most
basic representations are empty of directly meaningful social content.
Rappaport is not content to describe religious communities as cybernetic
systems. He specifically wants to discuss them as adaptive systems similar to
biological organisms. He defines as living any association that can be shown to
have inhering in it as a unit distinct processes at least occasionally initiated in
response to, as response to, and in attempted correction of, perturbation.
Thus, for Rappaport, biological organisms and religious communities are liv-
ing things, because they both exemplify membership in the class adaptive sys-
tems. The family resemblance Rappaport sees between religious communities
and biological organisms allows him to make comparisons between the evolu-
tionary processes guiding each kind of adaptive system through time. He
describes the relationship of people bound to each other by the same ritually-
established first principles as communities as fundamental in nature as those
defined by descent from common ancestors (1999, 326). He suggests religious
communities change their sacred myths in response to environmental pres-
sure in a manner formally similar to that prevailing in genetic processes. And
for the same reasons that all living things are thought to descend from earliest
life, he suggests it is plausible to think that, despite the birth of gods and their
banishment, [the continuity of religious communities] has remained unbro-
ken from the moment when first our ancestors spoke words in ritual (1999,
341). I will argue in this chapter that Rappaport does not adequately connect
the relationship of his functional theory of adaptive sociality with participants
individual psychology and spirituality. My goal will be to provide a clearer con-
ceptualization of religious communities as they involve beliefs, ritual, and
individual religious experience.
Rappaport sees religion as a result of ritual, which establishes the collective
acceptance of fundamental postulates such that orderly social life can proceed
as if there is absolute truth (Paul 2002). The ritual form is stable and consistent
enough to maintain culturally important reference values as a social control
feature within human social groups.4 Why is ritual needed to play the role
Rappaport says it does? Rappaport sees ritual as reducing the differences
between people caused by the genetically unbounded human imagination.
Linguistic symbol tokens are manipulable independent of what they reference;
this makes it possible for people to imagine possibilities outside of what is

3 Here I have in mind things like Soviet Communism, which Tumarkin (1983) has done a
remarkable job of analyzing in terms of its pseudo-religious organization.
4 This is David Sloan Wilsons term; see Ch. 5.
Rappaport, Revisited 23

proportioned by channels of sense perception, and outside of our needs and

interests as biological organisms (Deely 2001). We can live through alternative
characterizations of reality, not just our direct experience of it; we can inhabit
worlds of our own creation. Science fiction, fantasy, mythology, metaphysics,
utopian literatures, political theory, trans-human speculation all are made
possible by language. This creativity carries with it, however, the potential for
chaos in human social forms, due to the fact that it is possible to invoke very
different selection principles to organize human experience and the values rel-
evant to sociality. Rappaport calls these different ultimate selection principles
ideas of what constitutes the beautiful, good, and true logoi, or liturgical
orders. He argues that they are at some levels incommensurate, and thus out-
side of clear normative judgments. Humans require some mechanism to estab-
lish logoi and coordinate social forms other than consensus or force. That is
what ritual provides. When symbolic communication emerged, Rappaport
argues, ritual was put to a new use; it wasnt used to merely promote interindi-
vidual trust and mutuality, as it is in animals like baboons (Watanabe and Smuts
1999), but to validate mutual conventions, making them certain and unques-
tioned. Rappaport writes, the replacement of genetic determination of pat-
terns of behavior by their cultural (verbal) stipulation has conferred an
unparalleled adaptability upon human kindButtheir members are no longer
genetically constrained to abide by their conventions[ritual] is a functional
replacement for genetic determination of patterns of behavior (1999, 4178).

Rappaports Theory of Religion

Though he never offers an explicit definition of religion in Ritual and Religion,

Rappaport seems to think there are two defining characteristics of religious

1. Religious communities foster alternative forms of consciousness in at

least some individual participants that motivates their enthusiastic
2. Religious community social dynamics are adaptive and self-regulating,
explaining the unprecedented persistence of religious traditions across
time, geography, ethnic location, and cultural change.

Rappaport argues that alternative forms of consciousness result from the

heightened sense of unity produced by ritual, and that the unprecedented per-
sistence of religious traditions is the outcome of the way both ritual and myth
24 chapter 2

affects social dynamics. What Rappaport fails to notice is that ritual and myth
also have profound effects on the psychological life of individuals, which
means he misses an opportunity to demonstrate how the same formal features
ground the psychological and the social. By explicitly theorizing the psycho-
logical effects of ritual and myth, we will be able to see how divine ideas,
individual experience, and adaptive, self-regulating social dynamics are coor-
dinated into a mutually reinforcing set. Specifically (and going beyond
Rappaports argument), we will see that ritual and myth do three things: they
invite intense and meaningful reconstructions of personal identity according
to paradigmatic examples; they act as a form of encoded social memory by
organizing human relationships according to a spiritual map; and they pro-
vide the cognitive framework that makes religious community organization
robust, adaptive, and reproductive.
My task in this chapter will be to first identify how Rappaport characterizes
the divine concepts that make up myth, and what he means by ritual. Then, I
will examine how he believes these combine to secure the adaptive and self-
regulating form of religious community dynamics. Next, I will investigate how
Rappaport (incorrectly) thinks ritual produces alternative forms of conscious-
ness, and offer an alternative account based on the impact of ritual and myth
on the psyches of ritual participants. Lastly, I will theorize how myth acts as a
form of encoded social memory, organizing human social relationships accord-
ing to a spiritual map.

Myth Ideas about the Divine

Rappaport argues that a very special set of ideas are central to religions char-
acteristic coordination of public sociality. He uses several different terms to
characterize these features canonical messages, liturgical orders, logoi,
Ultimate Sacred Postulates, Cosmological Axioms, dominant symbols, material
metaphors. Some of these are distinguishable from others, while some seem to
be synonymous terms. I will distinguish the two most important, Ultimate
Sacred Postulates and Dominant Symbols,5 and suggest that these two together
compose what we typically mean by divine Beings and Ways such as Yahweh,
the Tao, and Qi.

5 More often than not, Rappaport uses the term Cosmological Axioms to refer to the comple-
ment to Ultimate Sacred Postulates; I have chosen to use Dominant Symbols because (1) he
uses it at times, (2) other theorists of religion have used the term in a manner similar to the
way Rappaport uses Cosmological Axioms, and (3) Dominant Symbols calls attention to their
metaphorical quality better than does Cosmological Axioms, which (I think, misleadingly)
draws attention to their discursive quality.
Rappaport, Revisited 25

According to Rappaport, conceptions of the divine are meant to describe

real, nonmaterial causes that ground both human experience and the natural
world. Ideas of the divine define the fundamental character of the cosmos;
their objects are not determinate things here-and-now, but rather foundational
principles that stand outside of time and space. Their significata are spiritual,
conceptual, or abstract, and they necessarily require symbols to be repre-
sented. The divine is characterized as being hidden to normal, biologically-
grounded experience, yet causally active in the natural world. For example, the
Tao is characterized as being something that cannot be directly indexed
through any normal human experience, and Yahweh is the transcendent cre-
ator of all things that stands outside of time and space. Though hidden from
normal experience, these absent divine Beings and Ways are characterized
metaphorically by examples taken from common human experience. For
example, the Tao is characterized by the effortless action of a Tai-chi master
whose disciplined self-control and self-denial demonstrates that chi is flow-
ing freely and without interruption through the master. And Yahweh is charac-
terized by the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery, demonstrating
Yahwehs ability, intentions, and personal agency.
For Rappaport, all ideas about the divine can be viewed as having two
aspects. One aspect is the specific, tangible, characteristic events and examples
that make known the divine, and that contribute to the complex of meanings
that make up a divine name. What is meant by Yahweh, for example, involves
the moral interpretation of the history of a particular people, concerning some
particularly important events. That history and those events represent what
Rappaport calls the Dominant Symbols (dss) that describe and characterize
the divine. The second aspect of divine ideas, what Rappaport calls the
Ultimate Sacred Postulates (usps), names the unseen, abstract, nonmaterial
posited cause or presence found in the characteristic events and examples that
make up Dominant Symbols. In the case of Yahweh, the posited abstract and
ideal cause is an unseen, moral agency that transcends any and all particular
tangible events or examples used to point to Yahweh. Any event deemed a
manifestation of Yahweh is not Yahweh in toto, but rather a particular manifes-
tation of Yahweh, who remains in another realm.6 It is this ideal, abstract and
nonmaterial cause that Rappaport claims is the Ultimate Sacred Postulate.

6 This phrase, biased as it is by Western metaphysical assumptions about reality, is extendable

in the direction of Eastern metaphysical assumptions. That is, whether the abstract ideal
realm is viewed statically as a kind of Being that exists some where that transcends the world
of the mundane, as it is in most western metaphysics, or viewed dynamically as a kind of
Path or Way that exists in some particular whens that transcend mundane happenings, the
26 chapter 2

Rappaports point in making this distinction is that divine ideas involve rei-
fying a purported abstract and ideal cause or presence found in a type of event,
quality, experience, or natural phenomena, as distinct from merely acknowl-
edging the existence of particular token events, qualities, experiences, or natu-
ral phenomena. As an analogy, consider that some physicists of a Platonic
persuasion might view the ontological status of laws of nature, such as the
Schrodinger equation, as causing the events under its purview.7 The events
that predictably happen according to the description given by the law happen
because of the law. Similarly, some mathematicians of a Pythagorean persua-
sion might view threeness as an abstract quality that exists ideally, and cannot
itself be pointed to, though one can point to any number of specific examples
of three things. To call any token of three things an example of threeness is
not to say that these three things here exhaust or are themselves threeness,
which exists over and above any particular manifestation of three things. These
examples clarify what Rappaport means about usps. When a Hindu claims
this fire is divine; it is Agni, this particular fire, here-and-now, does not exhaust
what is meant by Agni; rather, it partakes of the divine fire Agni. If the mean-
ing of Agni was exhausted by this fire, here-and-now, Agni would simply be
the name for this fire, here-and-now. usps name the type that grounds what
any particular token partakes of but does not exhaust.
Without specific Dominant Symbols, a usp would have no meaning at all.
Yahweh is a nonsense word, signifying nothing, outside of an account of
Yahwehs agency, concerns, and dealings with a particular people. usps are,
strictly speaking, empty because they name that aspect of a divine concept
that is not used up by particular manifestations of its dss; there is something
posited as left over after any and all particular manifestations of the divine are
accounted for.
Given the close connection between abstract types like laws of nature and
threeness, and divine concepts like Yahweh, how does a divine concept differ
from an abstract type? Rappaport claims divine concepts are types that repre-
sent the character of the cosmos as a whole, at its most basic; they are meant
to govern nature, the personal, and the social in their totality, in their unity.
Abstract concepts, on the other hand, are only meant to represent limited,
local manifestations of the cosmos. Nature, human experience, and social life
should all profoundly demonstrate the truth of divine concepts. Religious
communities celebrate when it appears that this happens; when nature,

ideal realm is held to be distinguishable from the normal beings and processes of life. For a
fuller explication of this, see Cassell (2012, Sec.6.2).
7 See Balashov (2003).
Rappaport, Revisited 27

human experience, or social life fail to indicate their ground of being, religious
work is usually performed to address the failure.
To summarize the distinction between usps and dss and how together they
represent divine ideas, Dominant Symbols reveal and characterize the divine
Being or Way and its effects, and Ultimate Sacred Postulates name and point to
the unseen divinity. During a Catholic Mass a divinity is addressed that can
neither be seen, heard, touched, smelled, nor addressed physically. However,
holy places, holy sounds, holy music, and holy words and addresses take the
place of this absence (R.S. Murphy 1979). The divinitys purported agency is
reified by usps, the divinity is known through dss.

The Ritual Form

Having discussed Rappaports characterization of mythological divine con-
tent, I now turn to his understanding of ritual. Ritual, for Rappaport, gives a
form or structure to human behavior, and sets apart certain ideas and content
as special. Ritual is the performance of more or less invariant sequences of
formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers (1999, 24).
In ritual, a pattern of relations between individuals is made distinguishable
from the individuals themselves; individuals may come and go, but the form of
the ritual they participate in remains the same. Ritual acts as a backbone, a
permanent and authoritative procedure by which individuals engage ideas
and each other over time in a guided, structured way.
The form of ritual is distinct from the content of ritual, and communicates
something about that content that cannot be communicated in any other way.
The performance of ritual frames whatever symbolic content is contained
within it. That frame communicates certainty, importance, specialness, and
public acceptance, regardless of the private stance of a ritual participant
towards those beliefs. Acceptance of ritualized content protects that content
and makes it resistant to change; ritual establishes what is center and what is
periphery in cultural systems. Depending on what symbolic content is made
central, social structures of great longevity can result.

Possibly the most important idea Rappaport contributes to the understanding
of religion is the concept of metaperformativity. This is Rappaports term for
the way ritual and myth together establish both the existence and authority of
divine Beings and Ways for a community. Rappaport explicitly relates meta-
performatives with Austins (1962) concept of performative utterances. A per-
formative utterance is a particular kind of linguistic utterance that makes a
truth claim, but the verification of the truth of that claim does not depend on
28 chapter 2

its correspondence with some external reality. Rather, by virtue of the author-
ity invested in those making such an utterance, it creates the truth of its own
pronouncement. Statements such as the bar is closed, I name this ship Queen
Elizabeth the Second, and I now pronounce you husband and wife, uttered by
the correct person in the correct situation, create truth by their pronounce-
ment. Metaperformatives go beyond the creation of mere conventional truths;
they define the character of the cosmos in which those truths have their place.
They establish the understandings that define states of affairs that regular per-
formatives rely on, such as marriage as a sacred institution. The metaperfor-
mativity entailed by ritual involving myth is built on at least three features.
First, ritual participants are inherently stating their acceptance of the divine by
their participation in ritual involving myth. As Paul (2002) notes in his review
of Ritual, to perform a ritual involving myth is to indicate, both to oneself and
to others, acceptance of that order, thereby obligating the performer to believe
the central message of the ritual. Second, through participation in ritual, a per-
former becomes fused with the message about the divine that is being communi-
cated by the ritual; by enlivening the ritual through participation, the
participant both transmits and receives the message of the ritual. To perform a
ritual is to breathe reality into an unseen metaphysical order, by demonstrat-
ing it as active and authoritative socially. Rappaport says that Ultimate Sacred
Postulates are not merely claimed, postulated or advanced, butconstituted
by the performativeness intrinsic to liturgical orders themselves. The truth of
the divine is established in the mode or manner of their expression (1999,
2789). Within human social systems, their truth is ontological rather than
epistemological: If no one any longer recited the Shema, Rappaport writes,
The Lord Our God the Lord is One would cease to be a social fact, whatever
the supernatural case may be (1999, 295). Third, the metaphysical order pre-
sented and accepted through ritual performance is indicated to be without
alternative, and changeless. Through its invariance, ritual performance declares
what is true; it does not question or offer alternatives to what it presents.
Performance of ritual implies a meta-message for what it encodes: This is the
Word. Metaperformativity establishes the collective acceptance of fundamen-
tal cosmological postulates such that orderly social life can proceed as if there
is absolute truth (Paul 2002). Metaperformativity, in sum, means that the social
authority of the divine claimed in ritual is demonstrated through ritual; perfor-
mance of ritual enacts within human sociality the society-organizing truth
that it claims.
A common trope of Hollywood story-telling highlights the idea of metaper-
formativity: a group of teen-age kids stumble upon a dusty old book of ancient
rituals for summoning long-dead gods and demons. They for fun decide to
Rappaport, Revisited 29

perform the ritual; the god or demon appears, not respecting the fact that the
group conjured the demon for amusement, or in an unbelieving way. The kids
are now obligated to the demon, because they have summoned it through the
ritual. While Rappaport does not think that metaperformativity summons pre-
existing ontological entities, he does claim that it has profound social and psy-
chological effects that makes it seem like it does. This is the essence of an
emergence approach to religion.

Metaperformativity supports Adaptive, Self-regulating Communities

The central theme of Rappaports book is metaperformativitys impact on the
self-persistence and adaptive nature of religious social organization. The sur-
vival of a ritually-organized community depends on its ability to persist by
protecting its identity on the one hand, while simultaneously being able to
adapt to different material and cultural situations on the other. How does the
ritualization of divine concepts support these seemingly conflicting demands?
First, note that metaperformativity insures that ideas of the divine are set
apart from normal discourse, and repeatedly re-entered into the thought-life
of a community through ritual performance. Ritual performance insures that
ideas about the divine are remembered and viewed as special. This insures that
the identity of the community is protected and robust. However, if this is the
case, doesnt this act as a strong buffer against change? How does this formal
structure allow adaptation? The key is noting the hierarchical nature of ideas
of the divine as they function in ritual.
Rappaport argues that ritual establishes Ultimate Sacred Postulates at the
unchanging center of the conceptual structure of a religious community, sur-
rounded by protective belts of layers of concepts and principles that are more
changeable. This form of organization allows a religious community to respond
homeostatically to perturbations by modifying their symbol systems in order
to maintain the truth value of certain fundamental propositions (Parmentier
2003). The first such protective belt is the Dominant Symbols that characterize
the nature of the divine; Dominant Symbols rarely change in the course of the
evolution of religious communities, although they can occasionally be added
to or subtracted from. At the next layer are things like ritual prescriptions,
taboos, commandments rules for living in accordance with Ultimate Sacred
Postulates, as made known through Dominant Symbols. These can change
even more often than Dominant Symbols. Even more peripheral (and more
changeable) are sanctified forms of sociality like political agreements, com-
pacts, and rules for economic exchange that ultimately rely for their justifica-
tion on usps and dss in some manner; and even beyond that are sanctified
tokens such as vows, pledges, promises, etc. Rappaport notices that propositions
30 chapter 2

closer to the center of this hierarchy of sacredness are general and important,
and towards the periphery they become specific and pragmatic. For example,
Dominant Symbols are mere metaphors; at best, they only suggest which con-
crete commandments, ritual prescriptions, taboos and such should be autho-
rized. At the center, most vague of all, stand Ultimate Sacred Postulates, which
do not refer to anything in this world, by definition. usps are nonmaterial and
without character in and of themselves. Rappaport notes that this emptiness
of meaningful content at the center of a religious community is crucial to the
communitys adaptability. Ultimate Sacred Postulates do not in themselves
specify particular social or material goals, or the proper means for fulfilling
them. Specifying nothing they can apparently sanctify anything (1999, 428).
The conceptual organization of a religious community is built around an
empty placeholder, similar to the numeral 0, insuring its longevity in the face
of variable conditions. Like a biological organism, a religious community can
adapt to different niches and changing conditions in the larger cultural and
social environment; the survival of the religious community as such is the cen-
tral effect of its organizational form.
Rappaport offers an example of such flexibility: Christian Kings in Europe
were obligated for centuries to pray for people through the laying on of hands
against a disease called scrofula. When new medicines and models of disease
were developed, the practice fell out of favor, without affecting the divine
nature of kingship. However, later, in many countries, even the divine nature of
kingship fell out of favor, without affecting the acceptance of Christian divini-
ties. This demonstrates the capacity of religious ritual to stabilize divine beliefs,
while allowing variation in what it actually means to practice belief in the

Ritual Invites Alternate States of Consciousness Concerning

the Divine
Having explained Rappaports view of myth, ritual, metaperformativity, and
how metaperformativity supports an adaptive and self-regulating social sys-
tem, I now need to explain how Rappaport thinks ritual fosters the other key
aspect of religion as he understands it: the alternative forms of consciousness
that, in at least some participants, motivates enthusiastic participation in reli-
gious community life.
Rappaport argues that the ritual entrainment of a group causes non-rational
numinous experience, which validates by association the ideational content of
ritual. The highly coordinated social behavior found in ritual dissolves normal
consciousness into a kind of shared consciousness wherein the larger entity
of the social unit becomes dominant. He thinks the revelation of hidden
Rappaport, Revisited 31

oneness is the core meaning of communitarian ritual. This meaningfulness

makes ideas of the divine feel true by simple association. Rappaport writes
that divine concepts seem to partake of the meaningfulness and authority of
the profound experience of oneness. He admits that it is logically unsound to
draw conclusions as to the truth of divine concepts from this association. But
since it does not trouble the faithful, it shouldnt trouble us (1999, 405).
This, in my opinion, is not only an incorrect description of the alternative
forms of religious consciousness characteristic of religion, but represents a
missed opportunity to bind together more tightly his account of adaptive soci-
ality and his account of alternate states of consciousness in the individual.
Implicit in some of the key themes of his theory is an alternative account of the
way metaperformativity invites alternate states of consciousness, which would
strengthen his account of the emergent nature of religion. Notice, however,
that even with its shortcomings, Rappaports explanation of meaningful reli-
gious experience allows him to argue that ritual links together the individual
and the social group in a way that is mutually beneficial to both a central idea
behind cybernetics and emergence theory. Because ritual performance, for
Rappaport, generates numinous experience, and numinous experience gener-
ates commitment to an adaptive hierarchy of conceptions crowned by usps,
ritual connects both individual experience and adaptive sociality in a way that
mutually reinforces each. The individual finds usps meaningful, and the social
organization founded in ritual is robust, adaptive, and long-lived.

Summary of Rappaport
Rappaports fundamental contribution to religious studies is that he offers a
profound theory as to why religious communities are the oldest, most robust
and adaptive form of sociality on earth. These characteristics are entailments
of ritual formality, as it sets apart mythological ideas about the divine. Because
ritual, as it frames divine ideas, produces a type of performative utterance
what he calls a metaperformative it produces an adaptive and self-regulat-
ing system of social relations that resists change in some areas even as it allows
changes in others, and brings participants into a demonstration of the truth of
the divine, having a powerful effect on the psyche. This is the core of Rappaports
theory (Robbins 2001).
It is instructive to note how Rappaports conception of ritual complements
and completes Geertzs famous definition of religion (1973), which is: (1) a sys-
tem of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting
moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general
order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of
factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. The
32 chapter 2

problem Geertzs definition faces is this: how does a system of symbols cause
powerful moods and motivations and clothe them with factuality such that
they seem realistic? By themselves, I do not believe symbols can do all that he
asks them to in this definition; only in combination with the metaperforma-
tiveness of ritual can symbols have such effects. Religion is not just a system of
symbols; nor is it merely ritual behavior. As Lambek notes, language and
embodied performance combine to make religion (Robbins 2001). According to
Rappaport, religious communities are ritually-structured metaperformative
utterances embodying the divine, which does (3) and entails (2), (4), and (5) of
Geertzs definition. Geertz senses a problem in his definition; he suggests in
the same chapter that he offers it that imbuing sacred symbols with persuasive
authority is the name of the game. He also says that ritual is involved in creat-
ing a worldview and ethos, as well as the authoritative experiences that con-
firm that worldview and ethos. But curiously, ritual is missing from his
definition of religion.
Rappaport puts ritual at the foundation of religion, but as Keane notes, this
is a characterization that both mystics and modernists might reject (Robbins
2001). What about beliefs, morality, and alternative experience? I would argue,
following Rappaport, that unless these are taken up by social forms that entail
metaperformativity, they are not, in themselves, religion.

An Alternative Account of Rappaport

As I mentioned in the last section, Rappaport explicitly argues that the mean-
ingfulness of myth is borrowed from the numinous experience of ritual; there is
nothing about divine ideas in themselves that contributes to the powerful expe-
rience found in religious ritual. I believe this is a mistake; by drawing on the very
categories Rappaport so carefully develops with respect to the social aspects of
ritual, I will demonstrate that an alternative theory of religious experience is
implicit in his own account. Further, this account is strikingly amenable to
characterization as an emergent system that takes advantage of memory, and
specifically, one that takes advantage of encoded memory. The religious experi-
ences of individuals in religious groups is a direct result of myth, which, further,
acts as encoded social memory, strongly constraining religious community
dynamics according to a spiritual map that is implicit in those experiences.
Rappaport, because he thinks the content of ritual borrows its meaning-
fulness from ritual performance, argues that negative political ideology can
beexperienced numinously just as easily as divine ideas, through their associa-
tion with ritual (e.g. the numinousness of the Nuremberg rallies (1999, 404)).
Rappaport, Revisited 33

I suggest, contra Rappaport, that ideas of the divine are especially effective in
promoting a specific kind of numinous experience, in a way that political ide-
ology is not. In effect, I will define religious experience as a function of the
formal effects of ritual and myth on the psyches of individuals.
Scholarly understanding of religious experience varies widely;8 my use of
the term here follows Wildmans (2011) analysis of intense experiences and
how they are related to what McNamara (2009) calls decentering. Wildman
suggests that an adequate phenomenological analysis of religious experience
actually reveals experiences that fall under several conceptual categories. He
distinguishes vivid experiences from normal or mundane experience. Vivid
experiences are relatively unusual, typically colorful states of consciousness
that are either extremely significant or extremely strange. The border between
these vivid and mundane experiences is set by our physiology in interaction
with our environment, which allows certain habits to form, including expecta-
tions for what is normal, unproblematic, and deserving of no special atten-
tion. A subset of vivid experiences he describes as intensely, existentially
significant; these intense experiences are sometimes anomalous and some-
times not, sometimes religious and sometimes not, but alwaysrelated to mat-
ters of ultimate existential concern (2011, 7779). These intense experiences
are characterized by strength of feeling and the interconnectedness of ideas,
memories, and emotions; they have significant social and personal effects.
Wildman argues that an important example of an intense experience is
found in the neuropsychological concept of decentering, which McNamara
introduces to describe how religious participation may meaningfully recon-
struct personal identity. McNamara argues that the evolved biological role of
the brains executive self is to inhibit desires and goals that are inconsistent
with a single, unified consciousness and a unified set of goals. However, the
executive self does not possess enough agency to bind and own all the inten-
tional states associated with the brain. It usually does so well enough to pre-
vent problem-states like Multiple Personality Disorder, but not well enough to
prevent angst and a sense of personal failure and suffering. McNamara sug-
gests that the problem of the divided self, as it appears to us in self-conscious-
ness, is a fundamental problem religious communities prescribe solutions for.9

8 See James (1985/1902), Proudfoot (1985), and Saver and Rabin (1997) for different takes on the
9 While I am not confident that each and every motivation that people have for seeking reli-
gious experience is covered by this account, I do think the idea of decentering cuts a wide
swath through many of the most relevant examples of religious experience, applicable to
many different religious communities and the alternative experiences they cultivate.
34 chapter 2

McNamara explains that the sense of self is malleable; brains can and will
reorganize to accommodate multiple personalities. Further, he notes that reli-
gious narratives and practices offer interpretations and models about what is
possible for the self, and define what the self most truly is. The highest global
standard for a self is the divine Being or Way that a religious ritual is oriented
towards. Religious practices encourage the taking up of that global standard;
both private religious practices and participation in public rituals promote
continuous transformation of the self towards those ideals. These narratives
and practices integrate conflict concerning the present self into a resolution of
that conflict in a truer self, which is experienced as relatively conflict-free. As
evidence for this interpretation, McNamara notes that the brain systems cru-
cial to a sense of self are precisely those that are implicated in certain religious
experiences, a subset of the kind that Wildman characterizes as intense.10 He
analyzes this kind of religious experience in terms of decentering.
Decentering involves a temporary relaxation of central neurological control
that leads ultimately to greater self-control. It puts the individual in a receptive
and integrative mode, and provides the protective cognitive scaffolding neces-
sary to promote integration of cognitive and emotional content in service of a
newly developing self. According to McNamara, decentering occurs in four
stages: some impasse occurs in the experience of the present self because of
conflict or conflicting desires. It could be a sense of personal defeat or failure,
or a discrepancy in a persons self-concept when compared to reality. Following
this sense of failure of self, a suspension of agency (which might be facilitated
by religious practices such as fasting, asceticism, ritual performance, or drug
ingestion) decouples the current self from control over executive resources.
The current self is placed in a suppositional logical space. Next, potential
alternative selves are searched until a solution to the problem is discovered.
These can come from a stock of existing identities, narratives of others, mythol-
ogy, history, fiction, or dreams. In a religious context, the ideal self can be a
deity or other supernatural agent, made particularly salient in a religious ritual.
Finally, the old self is integrated into the new self via narrative devices.
Importantly, decentering does not occur in working memory; it is not merely
trying on a new self. It can be a conscious experience, but it is not something
initiated by the actor; rather, it is experienced as something that happens to a

10 McNamaras analysis does not distinguish between the different phenomenological types
of religious experience Wildman analyzes, but Wildman sees McNamaras account as
being primarily about intense experiences involving existential ultimacy. See discussion
in Wildman (2011, 7794).
Rappaport, Revisited 35

person when the current self is suppressed in some way and guidelines for
alternative selves are ready at hand to be taken up.
McNamaras proposal offers us a way to understand how the Balinese, for
example, should have such profound direct encounters with divine presences
like Rangda, as Geertz (1973) recounts, and the Maring should have such pro-
found experiences of Smoke Woman, as Rappaport recounts. These represent
decentering experiences where possession by a divine agent is expected and
desired. But is there anything in Rappaports theory that would explain why
religious community participants, above others, would expect, invite, and
value such experiences?

Metaperformativity Facilitates Decentering

One outcome of Rappaports understanding of ritual, which flows from its defi-
nition, is that to participate in a ritual is to perform invariant sequences of acts
and utterances that the performer did not encode and that the performer does
not have the authority to change. This means that ritual performance involves
an implied speaker or revealer of the ritual. He writes, The very invariance
of ritual proposesan agent to whom the efficacy of performativeness intrin-
sic to rituals language can be attributed (1999, 398). In a regular performative
utterance, such as a ritual in service to the social contract (e.g. a presidential
swearing-in ceremony), the implied speaker of the ritual is us, all who adhere
to the contract and from whom the authority of the contract ultimately flows.
However, in a metaperformative utterance, when ritual is combined with myth
that specifies an unseen, immaterial divine cause, the proposed speaker of
the ritual is named, described, and held to be different than the group who is
performing the ritual. The identity, reality, and authority of an extraordinary
speaker is claimed.11
Notice how the presence of Ultimate Sacred Postulates is responsible for
this.12 usps like Yahweh and the Tao are placeholders for non-material causes
held to govern the natural and human worlds. Ritual metaperformativity
involving usps implies that nonmaterial Beings and Ways are the extraordi-
nary speakers of ritual, and that they theoretically should be ultimately mean-
ingful to human life. Participation in ritual also implies that these non-material
Beings and Ways have been accepted as real by the participant. More than that,
the very act of participating in ritual fuses the speaker with the message of the
ritual, as the participant embodies and enlivens the divine reality. The divine

11 Even impersonal visions of the divine can speak through ritual.

12 These facts about the cognitive implication of divine concepts were anticipated by
Proudfoot (1985).
36 chapter 2

speaks through the ritual participant, through the participants very practice.
This means that decentering is suggested by the very act of ritual participation.
In ritual, one is submitting ones self to the divine Being or Way implicated by
the ritual, and that divine being or path is embodied in the ritual participants
actions. Thus, what Rappaport missed in his account of religious experience is
a possibility implied by his own theory: in ritual metaperformativity, normal
self-identity is suppressed, and a door opened for the divine to be experienced
and lived through a new self, experienced in decentering.
Ideas of the divine do not merely insure that some extraordinary speaker is
causally active in ritual; they imply that a specific extraordinary speaker is
active. This is an entailment of the Dominant Symbols associated with the
usps. Through Dominant Symbols, the nature of the divine being or path is
established, not just the divines existence. The usp (the Lord, the Tao) is
authoritatively characterized. For example, what is announced in certain
Jewish rituals are not just usps such as the Yahwehs name, but in addition a
plethora of Dominant Symbols connected to the usp, such as the Exodus from
Egypt and the giving of the Law, establishing the circumstances, reasons, and
terms of the Lords relationship to Israel. Similarly, for the Confucian commu-
nity, the idea of Qi is captured by Confucius acts of deference in Book 10 of the
Analects, suggesting how harmony that is achieved through patterns of defer-
ence allows one to become a co-creator of cosmic proportions in nurturing
the processes of heaven and earth (Ames 2003). The important point is that
myth delimits specific possibilities for divine manifestations that can poten-
tially be experienced in the right circumstances. To have an experience of
Yahweh or Qi is dependent on having a catalog of appropriate experiences that
can be considered legitimate tokens of Yahweh, or Qi. For one to experience a
miraculous healing from God means that ones concept of God includes the
possibility of miraculous healings. And if decentering is invited, a very specific
ideal type of the self will be taken up. Divine concepts, thus, can bias one
towards a posture in life that looks for, expects, and facilitates such experi-
ences. This is not to conclude that such experiences are purely a matter of
interpretation, as Proudfoot (1985) argues. I will take up more metaphysically
daring interpretations of this theme in the last chapter.
To summarize, in every ritual act involving myth, there is an implicit set of
claims being made by participants. First, that the divine exists, and exists in
certain ways, with certain specific characteristics. Second, that one is accept-
ing the authority of the divine. And third, that one is embodying or channel-
ing the divine through ritual practice; one is submitting ones ego to an
extraordinary causal influence. Religious ritual invites the suppression of ones
normal sense of self, and decentering in a particular direction. This is why, in
Rappaport, Revisited 37

exceptional circumstances, religious communities that do not explicitly invite

decentering processes can be potent locations from which such experiences
can flow. This fact was registered by Viktor Frankl (2006/1946) a psychologist
who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. He noted that in some cases,
the extreme conditions forced upon Jewish prisoners there released profound
manifestations of Jewish piety in the form of charismatic experiences, lying
latent in the Jewish traditional religion forming the background of the secular
Jews brought to Auschwitz. This religious training provided the scaffolding for
meaningful, anomalous interaction with the divine, as conceived through
The important contribution of non-material usps to the decentering pro-
cess is what they deny and rule out to normal experience, and thus what they
make room for in anomalous experience. By acting as a placeholder for a pur-
ported nonmaterial causal influence, metaperformativity involving divine

13 This is an important point that suggests a response to a potential criticism of the view I am
developing here. Boyer (2001) argues that overemphasizing spectacular experiences when
considering religion gives the impression that there is a pure form of religion defined by
these special kinds of experiences that exceptional people have, and that the masses degrade.
Boyers take is that the exceptional experience is merely an outlying form of mundane reli-
gion that is not much more than a conglomeration of biases resulting from our evolutionary
In response, I argue that it is the outlier who is held up as the paradigmatic religious
practitioner in most religious communities, and in exceptional circumstances such as Nazi
concentration camps, the outlier might be held up as the norm. The heroes of religion
those that found movements, re-inspire old movements, and are deemed as especially
blessed are those that in some way or another are held to be particularly close to or
possessed by the divine. Saints and prophets, as well as Christs, Sages, and Bodhisattvas, are
those whose exemplary embodiment of the unseen divine set the plumb line for everyone
else. What inspires and (re)produces the religious life is the way ritual makes divine concepts
present, alive, and meaningful for participants, and this involves decentering at some level.
Furthermore, while Boyer may be correct in asserting that most people do not have spec-
tacular decentering experiences, this does not mean that the experiences of the majority
do not involve decentering. Decentering can be familiar and perhaps highly ritualized and
deliberately cultivated, besides being experienced as something unusual, unfamiliar, and
unexpected (Wildman 2011, 88). I suggest that when decentering is experienced anomalously,
the conscious mind is strongly displaced, translating into more spectacular manifestations
in line with McNamaras account. When experienced in familiar and deliberately cultivated
ways, as Wildman draws attention to, decentering never completely or even primarily
displaces the conscious mind. Spectacular cases may draw more attention to the activity of
the divine, which is why they are held up as exemplars, but the work of decentering can take
place in more mundane ways.
38 chapter 2

concepts creates a specified absence in the psyches of ritual participants.14

The psyche experiences an absence because its own role and the role of nor-
mal, pragmatic experience is purposely diminished; it is a specified absence
because specific Dominant Symbols delimit the types of possible experiences
one might have of the divine that fill the space vacated by normal experience.
As an account of how Rangda and Smoke Woman can be meaningful pres-
ences to their respective communities, I suggest this explanation is much more
promising than Rappaports emphasis on the association of divine concepts
with ritual. Rappaport acknowledges that metaperformativity is at the heart of
religious communitys adaptive, cybernetic organization, but he doesnt recog-
nize that it might also be the source of religious experience.

Decentering Links the Psychological to the Social by a Spiritual Map

In this account of religious experience, ritual and myth produce both the
adaptive organization of the community, and the psychological experience of
individuals concerning unseen causes. This represents an advance of
Rappaports theory. What still needs to be clarified, however, is the claim that
myth represents encoded social memory, organizing human relationships
according to a spiritual map, and that this map connects the psychological
dynamics of individuals and the social dynamics of religious groups in a mutu-
ally reinforcing set.
We can describe myths as encoded social memory because their authorita-
tive role for the religious community is indirect, stemming from their role in
producing religious experience, not from any understanding reached during
normal, pragmatic consciousness. In other forms of sociality, what serves as
memory does so directly. Participants in a nation-state, for example, build their
individual and corporate identities as a result of concepts and roles that are
pragmatically and directly about sociality. Constitutions, such as the us
Constitution, give direct terms and reasons for the political relationships
between people. The nation and the individual have been linked together by
key documents that pragmatically act as social memory.15
On the other hand, religious initiations, confirmations, and public and pri-
vate decentering experiences dont depend upon pragmatic and direct con-
cepts and roles to connect people to each other, but on locating the individual

14 The term is Deacons (2006).

15 Margaret Archer (1995), using an emergence paradigm to examine sociological phenom-
ena, argues along the lines I am suggesting here. Though she doesnt explicitly thematize
the idea of social memory (in fact, her argument would be greatly strengthened if she did so),
she describes the mnemonic effects of rules, constitutions, and roles admirably.
Rappaport, Revisited 39

in relationship to an experience of the divine, which in turn locates the indi-

vidual to the community. Myth guides and biases the decentering process,
which acts as a system of exchange connecting individuals and others in a
group defined theologically. For example, when individual Native Americans pur-
sue and experience animal spirit guides in their vision quests, these experiences
bond the individual to others in the community according to the way the rela-
tions between the various, theologically-described spirit guides are experienced,
not according to the natural relations obtaining between the community. The
communitys future is guided by the terms and possibilities inherent in the theo-
logical vision of ultimate reality, and the way those possibilities have been taken
up in individual experience. Without at least some participants experiencing the
divine, religious social organization would not long persist.
Ritual and myth produce direct expectations of the divines involvement in
religious social groups. Csordas (2001), reflecting on Rappaports theory, pro-
poses that some experiences in the psyches of individuals act like a transducer,
connecting the ideal world of the sacred with the material world of existence.
He offers Catholic Charismatic words of knowledge and Native American
Church physical signs as examples of such transducers. These sanctified forms
of numinous experience give specific, mediating knowledge to individuals and
their communities, at a level far more specific than myths do. Similarly,
Wikstrom (1990) suggests that the play of religious imagination connects indi-
viduals, the divine, and the social group together. I suggest that what creates
the capacity for such experiences whether conceived of as imagination, or
perhaps as something parapsychologically more potent is precisely the
expectation that the divine is what mediates the relationship of individuals to
each other. Even spectacular manifestations of the divine may occur as all are
coordinated by the organizing potency of this specified absence like spokes
of a wheel coordinated by the hole of a wheels hub.
It is important to note the synergistic effect of ritual and myth on individu-
als and groups: it is this synergy that gives the ongoing dynamics of a religious
community its systemic and emergent character. Each individuals experience
of religious decentering confirms the communitys story of ultimate reality,
even as it contributes a new strand and a new potential vector for that story to
grow and develop in open-ended ways. As ritual and myth are made individu-
ally meaningful through decentering, community ritual dynamics are rein-
forced and a metaphysical order is established; as community ritual dynamics
are reinforced and a metaphysical order is established, individuals are contin-
ually re-invited to access transformative decentering experiences that have a
definite character, as well as community support. Each provides the condition
for the others continued existence.
40 chapter 2

The Example of Haitian Voodoo

Perhaps the best example I have found in the anthropological literature ana-
lyzing a religious community in terms that suggest this revision of Rappaports
theory is Lowenthals (1978) analysis of a Haitian voodoo service (svis). Against
functional explanations of religious participation prevalent in some approaches
to religious studies, he suggests we need to notice the nature of the rewards
motivating individual participation. Lowenthal analyzes Voodoo, known for
its practice of spirit possession, in terms of the relationship between religious
belief, sociology, and individual psychological experience. He notes what is
definitive of spirit possession (a decentering experience) is its presence in col-
lective performances (ritual) and its origin in a belief in spirits (myth). Together,
these three influence both the psychological organization of individuals, and
the social organization of the community. This analysis makes for a highly
instructive account of what I describe as metaperformativity.
In what follows I will trace key moments in his account almost word for
word, paraphrasing slightly and changing the order for clarity:

A svis [ritual performance] is structured, organized, and experienced in

relationship to two things basic theological tenets concerning the lwa
(ancestor spirits), and a particular aesthetic principle governing collec-
tive performance. The aesthetic and performative feature of a svis is tied
integrally to its theological and devotional ends. The folk theory of pos-
session is responsible. The lwa themselves know how they want to be
honored, and assert themselves in services to secure their desires. This is
why possession is central to the svis. To induce possession is the goal, as
it demonstrates the pleasure of the lwa at the svis. During svis, partici-
pants are in the presence of supernatural beings; they are natural and
real, the dance itself demonstrating how real they are. The concept of
possession and a principle of performance together constitute the essen-
tial features of the cultural context within which each svis unfolds.
A hot svis is an involved and enthusiastic service, when the happi-
ness of people and the happiness of the lwa are obviously manifest. A
hot svis is not just one that has been effective at bringing on trance,
however. Rather, a hot svis helps to create a subjective reality for the
svite in which the essence of worship comes to be participation in the
collective creation of song and dance. For those unpossessed, dancing is
not dancing for the lwa, but dancing with the lwa they are sharing in the
act of aesthetic creation with the gods themselves, making it perhaps
the ultimate satisfaction of voodoo worshipno performances equal in
Rappaport, Revisited 41

intensity, enthusiasm, and involvement those which include the lwa as

Haitian aesthetic sensibilities are closely tied to the notion of full par-
ticipation in the act of creation, rather than to passive contemplation or
appreciation. A svis involves individual creativity and collective partici-
pation. There is a holistic, social component implying the presence of
both human and spiritual persons that makes the individual dances
meaningful in a way they wouldnt be otherwise.
The svis is a ritual performance that orders the relationship of humans
and spirits, stipulating what form of organization and tone of interper-
sonal relations and cooperation matter. The theological and experiential
significance of worship within this religious system emerge from the rit-
ual process which successfully articulates this set of culturally patterned
expectations with a particular mode of collective participation.
emphasis mine

In Lowenthals account, notice how myths about the lwa non-physical, spiri-
tual beings organize both individual psychological experiences involving
decentering, and indirectly create a social form biased by the particular tone of
voodoo Dominant Symbols. Individual Haitians dont gather together for the
sake of sociality; they gather together to experience the lwa, whose presence at
a svis provides an experience of profound aesthetic harmonization of the
individual, the group, and the divine. Dominant Symbols include the aesthet-
ics of singing and dancing with the gods, and the personal characteristics of
the lwa as given by voodoo belief, leading to their appearance as particular
personalities in individuals experiencing decentering.
The Haitian svis is organized around a specified absence created by ritual
and myth. The metaperformativity of the svis creates the expectation of
specific alternate states of consciousness, guides them, and makes ritual gath-
erings an attractive and valuable fact of Haitian life, due to the collective expe-
rience of many individuals. The svis will continue to organize Haitian life as
long as it continues to adapt to changes in custom, culture, people groups, and
geographical location as needed.


Myth references divine Beings and Ways considered as nonmaterial causal

agencies that manifest in paradigmatic ways. Ritual is an embodied, participa-
tory activity that frames and sets apart whatever cognitive content is indicated
42 chapter 2

by it. Together, ritual and myth have three important effects on individuals and
groups. First, they establish the authority and indicate acceptance of the real-
ity of the divine. This implies and may invite the suppression of normal
self-identity, and a psychological experience called decentering. Decentering is
a neuropsychological term that captures how, in a religious context, reli-
giously-inspired visions of the self can replace either spectacularly or in more
deliberate and mundane fashion the self of a ritual participant. The way
decentering is experienced will be biased and directed by the paradigmatic
examples of the divine. Second, decentering experiences invited by ritual and
myth decode mythological social memory, creating groups who relate to each
other through their common relationship to the divine. It is the relationship of
each to the divine that will define proper individual and social behavior, and in
collective group gatherings, will make room for subtle and not-so-subtle mani-
festations of the divine. Third, since the subjects of myth are ultimately not of
this world, the divine can never be exhausted by or finally limited to any mate-
rial or cultural manifestation of human life. Indeed, the divine can be used
to support or criticize almost any possible sociocultural manifestation.
Communities defined by their relationship to the divine have a robust, adap-
tive, and reproductive organizational structure, and can continue to exist
across great expanses of time and cultural change. These three effects of ritual
and myth link together individual psychological experience and social organi-
zation in a mutually-reinforcing set, where particular kinds of individual expe-
rience justify participation in the ritual group, and participation in the ritual
group re-invites particular kinds of individual experience. This view of reli-
gious communities explains why religious communities exhibit the abstract,
formal structure of an adaptive, self-reproducing biological organism. It also
begins to suggest why religious beliefs are meaningful to individuals, as well as
why they occupy a central place in religious groups. Ritual and myth produce a
robust, conservative, but adaptive social order, and a creative, meaningful, and
experientially potent psychic order. This, in my view, is the proper way to take
Rappaports insightful application of emergence theory to religious commu-
nity life and extend it.
A potential criticism of this approach is that it overemphasizes decentering
religious experiences, prevalent in only a subset of religious communities and
participants, and is thus not characteristic of religion.16 It also might be criti-
cized for being too theoretical, too abstract, or too imperialistic to make sense
of actual religion on the ground. To assess these complaints, I will use the per-
spective generated in this chapter and apply it to a test case that might give it

16 As I noted in fn. 13.

Rappaport, Revisited 43

difficulties the case of Confucianism. The experiment, however, will be set

aside to Appendix, as some readers more than others might be interested in
the details of the examples and arguments offered. Now, we will move to a
consideration of the assumptions of emergence theory that have been in the
theoretical background of the account of religion I have offered in this chapter;
my hope is that the account of religion offered has been compelling enough to
warrant the tour.
chapter 3

Emergence and Semiotics a Primer

In the previous chapter, I did not specifically couch my account of religion

using explicit emergence and semiotic categories and terms. In this chapter,
my goal is to make clear what I believe is state-of-the-art emergence theo-
rizing, in order to gain the perspective necessary to distinguish an emergent
approach to the study of religion from other naturalistic theories of religion
that have appeared recently (D.S. Wilsons Darwins Cathedral and Daniel
Dennetts Breaking the Spell will be used later in this book as sophisticated rep-
resentative examples).
I will primarily be utilizing the recent work of Terrence Deacon as he draws
on the thought of philosopher C.S. Peirce; but I will also investigate three com-
plementary ideas relevant to the discussion: J.L. Austins performative utterances,
Howard Pattees semantic closure, and Douglas Hofstadters strange loops. As a
result of this chapter, we should have tools to better understand the dynamic
relationship between the mnemonic function of myth and ritual; the robust,
adaptive, and long-lived persistence of religious communities; and the mean-
ingful transformative experiences and altered states of consciousness religious
communities cultivate in individuals.

Emergent Systems

Terrence Deacon1 has been one of the ablest recent expositors of emergence
theory, a theoretical approach that has roots going back at least to John Stuart
Mill, and addresses issues that have been discovered and re-discovered a num-
ber of times in the past 150 years.2 In this section, I will outline the key features
of Deacons theory, to be followed by a similar look at semiotics.

1 In this section I will be chiefly drawing on Deacons earlier papers on emergence (Deacon
2006; Goodenough and Deacon 2003; Deacon 2003a; Deacon 2003b; Weber and Deacon 2000;
Deacon and Sherman 2007; Goodenough and Deacon 2006; Deacon 2000; Deacon, Cashman,
and Sherman 2006; Sherman and Deacon 2007), where he attempts to describe the categories
necessary for understanding the phenomenon, and his recent book, Incomplete Nature (2012),
which addresses fundamental issues in emergence theory in a much deeper way.
2 See Clayton (2006), McLaughlin (1992), and Juarrero (2010) for a history of emergence theory. Issues
related to emergence are also discussed in the fields of cybernetics, philosophy of mind, and dynamic
systems theory, and in the study of complex adaptive systems, group selection, and superorganisms.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004293762_004

Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 45

Emergence Complements Reduction

In Deacons hands, emergence is not a new field of the sciences, nor does it
introduce new forces or entities into established scientific fields. It is more like
a metaphor change, a change in perspective that draws attention to problems
previously ignored, and asks questions previously unasked. The metaphor
change suggested by emergence allows Deacon to ask how it is that the entities
and processes investigated in physics can be organized into living organisms
exhibiting functional adaptation, and into human persons who can engage the
natural world with intelligence and intentionality. Deacons version of emer-
gence draws attention to organization rather than to component parts, and
tries to account for the increase in organization exhibited over time by some
systems, particularly those that manifest self-serving organizational dynamics.
Emergence theory emphasizes certain aspects of phenomena usually ignored
by reductionist approaches. Deacon suggests what a few of these aspects are:

While reductionist approaches give us a cast of characters that make up all

phenomena, characterizing parts and their potential for interaction, emer-
gence approaches focus on how contextual relations between aggregates of
component parts and external objects matters to what happens across
larger spans of space, time, and referential fields.
Reductionist approaches give us the basic physical laws describing cause
and effect that apply to all parts everywhere; emergence approaches focus
on novel arrangements of causality which sometimes appear, without
invoking unprecedented physical laws. Emergence is the attempt to tell the
story of how matter/energy and form interact to produce complexity, func-
tion, and intentionality across the hierarchy of the sciences from physics,
to chemistry, to biology, etc. Emergence approaches acknowledge that what
is known at any lower level science underdetermines what would count as
knowledge to a higher-level science. To know that the theoretical entities of
a higher level science are made up of the theoretical entities taken from a
lower level science (which reductionism as a strategy demonstrates) does
not give an account of what specifically characterizes the way those charac-
ters interact at a higher level, and why.
Reductionist approaches focus on parts in isolation, what they are intrinsi-
cally. Emergence approaches focus on how those parts interact causally in
systems, and are often reflected in research paradigms sensitive to systemic
factors (Deacon 2003b). Systemic emergent effects are often the most criti-
cal causal processes behind phenomena to be explained.
Reductionist approaches are concerned with the specific material com-
position and causal processes underlying a particular phenomenon;
46 chapter 3

emergence approaches are interested in phenomena demonstrating the

same systemic causal dynamics operating in diverse domains, and across
different structural implementations, which is what motivates the idea
that these phenomena are relatively independent of specific material
Reductionist approaches tend to prioritize isolated, closed systems in order
to understand their lawful behavior; emergence approaches note that open,
far-from-equilibrium, thermodynamically self-simplifying systems can also
serve as the means for perpetuating and maintaining form across time.

Emergence Involves the Spontaneous Recruitment of Self-simplifying

If in Deacons hands emergence is a complement not a competitor to a
reductionist perspective, he argues that the fundamental advance it makes is
that it offers conceptions that overcome the misleading machine metaphor
usually invoked to describe complex systems. At one time, organized systems
like biological entities were viewed as machines not unlike intricate clock-
works, resulting from the intelligent foresight of an intentional designer. The
idea of intelligent foresight has been replaced in the sciences by the blind
luck aspect of random variation in Darwins theory. However, the idea that
a complex organized system is highly machined is still widely held. Thus,
we currently think in terms of random machines. Machines are necessarily
delicate, precise, task-specific organizations of causal processes; they are
not robust.
Deacon thinks we need to replace the highly machined aspect of the meta-
phor with the idea of self-simplifying processes. This term, which Deacon
explains is more descriptively accurate than the more commonly used term
self-organizing, describes systems where constraints on the otherwise possi-
ble degrees of freedom of aggregate parts are replicated in a consistent man-
ner. Thus, such systems are simpler with respect to all possible interactions of
the components parts, as a result of the way constraints are passed on again
and again within the system. Self-simplifying processes provide better intu-
itions for gaining insight into the ordering impetus of complex systems like
biological organisms than do machined processes. First, machines involve
pre-specified specialized parts brought together in a highly constrained order
to form a whole, which suggests that only highly unlikely chance events would
allow organized complex systems to exist. Self-simplifying processes, to the
contrary, are first naturally-occurring dynamic wholes which only later separate

3 Thus, Deacon argues that emergence is related to the logic of functionalism.

Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 47

out into specialized parts. Second, a machine is not allowed to vary physically.
It must always act consistently with an externally determined order, its func-
tion. Self-simplifying processes, on the other hand, recruit spontaneous intrin-
sic tendencies, which can and will vary, and use them in novel ways. Only later
are varieties of self-simplifying processes made subject to selection. Third, a
machine whose outputs-to-inputs are determined in advance is information-
ally static. It is like a deductive proof from its inputs, its outputs are neces-
sary. The opposite is true of a self-simplifying process. At the core of such a
system is a fundamental informational openness, a vagueness of determina-
tion, an incompleteness. By having no preset inputs tied to preset outputs, a
self-simplifying process can find use for noise, while machines must have noise
eliminated for the sake of predictability. Noise for a machine is a problem to
overcome; for a self-simplifying process, it can be the ground of novelty and
Deacon notes that natural selection, a process considered critical to under-
standing biological organisms, already assumes the existence of processes of
non-equilibrium thermodynamics, self-maintenance, reproduction, and adap-
tation that it improves upon but cannot explain. Thus, self-simplification
should be considered a primitive feature of both biology and information and
natural selection derived features. This conceptual shift towards understand-
ing biology as self-simplifying processes upon which natural selection acts
makes clear that the full plan of an organism does not have to be encoded in a
genome. In the place of a fully specified genome, genes need only act as biasing
mechanisms that coax otherwise spontaneous processes down predictable
pathways (Deacon 2000).

Emergence is about Relational Properties, Not Constituent Properties

As mentioned above, emergent approaches to the sciences distinguish between
the material features and specific properties of constituent parts, and the rela-
tional, configurational, and topological features of aggregates. A focus on the
topology of relations suggests emergent phenomena are not new things, but
stable, robust patterns of dynamic processes where relational properties domi-
nate over constituent properties. Bickhard and Campbell (2000) have given
a nice picture of this; they write, Flames, waves, vortexes none are super-
venient on underlying constituents. They are more like knots or twists in an
underlying flow nothing remains persistent other than the organization of
the knot itself. They are topological entities, not substantive entities. As
Deacon notes, new relational properties, not new substances or physical laws,
are what justify the connotations of the word emergence. Formal or pattern
novelty is generated via relations.
48 chapter 3

Deacon Identifies Three Types of Emergent Systems

Deacon offers a general definition of emergence as unprecedented global regu-
larity generated within a composite system by virtue of the higher-order conse-
quences of the interaction of component parts (2006, 122). In Deacons theory, this
definition covers three types of emergent phenomena; the distinction between
these three types represents the novel contribution of Deacons approach to
emergence theory. The three-tiered characterization suggests a way to distin-
guish a hierarchy of natural kinds, a hierarchy of ontology. The first two emer-
gent types distinguish between intra-level relations, the third emergent type
marks the transition to a new ontological level (Graves 2009). These intra- and
inter-level distinctions suggest how wholes differ organizationally, not materi-
ally, from each other and from parts. At each level, what is determined to hap-
pen at the level of physics is less relevant for understanding future states of the
system than relational properties at some higher level of assessment.4
Deacon labels the three types of emergent dynamics homeodynamics, mor-
phodynamics, and teleodynamics.

Homeodynamics is the simplest and most basic form of emergent phenom-
ena; a key example is a gas settling into thermodynamic equilibrium. Inhomeo-
dynamics, aggregated elements dynamically interacting in an improbable
state spontaneously move towards a more probable state. This spontaneous
movement results in a dissipation of constraint, as physical dispositions such as

4 Van Gulick (1995) has argued that ontological levels studied by the special sciences can be
defended from reductionist claims by noting how the causal powers of objects described at
these higher levels are explained by the organization of the causal roles of the constituents.
The special sciences pick out stable recurring sets of boundary conditions for physical forces.
They isolate a level of causal order and regularity in the natural world. According to Van
Gulick, there is much to be said about considering these patterns as real: they are stable and
recurring; they are stable despite changes in their underlying constituents; many are self-
sustaining and self-productive in the face of perturbing forces; it is the larger context of their
patterns that affect which causal powers of their constituents are activated or are likely to be
so; and the selective activation of causal powers of parts can contribute to the maintenance
and preservation of the pattern itself. Following up on this line of thought, Deacon considers
his chief task in Incomplete Nature to explain how organization can consistently and sponta-
neously arise in nature, and how determinism at one level of explanation can ground a spon-
taneous tendency at another level. For the sake of thinking about emergence theory and
religion, I will simply assume that Deacons account of emergent phenomenon is correct,
without focusing too much on the kind of details Deacon is concerned with in his book. See
Cassell (2013) for my take on what his book adds to the emergence discussion.
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 49

velocity, charge, and energy become maximally uncorrelated through the

repeated interactions of many components. Although the local, mechanistic
interactions of parts are potentially time-reversible, the overall effect of these
interactions on the aggregate is an irreversible movement to maximum entropy.
In homeodynamics, aggregates fall towards regularities by virtue of statistical
canceling effects that reduce difference, leading to systemic relational proper-
ties. Structural and thermodynamic effects are averaged (Graves 2009).
Consider the state of liquidity. Liquidity is not a property that applies to
individual molecules, only to aggregates in constant interaction. Relational
molecular properties are responsible for liquidity, as opposed to intrinsic
molecular properties such as mass or charge. In repeated molecular inter-
actions across spatial scales, the specific unique features of individual mole-
cules (e.g. their charge, geometry, orientation, momentum, internal vibration,
etc.) distribute in such a way as to cancel one another in aggregate, thus...
converg[ing] to similar results across a wide range of substrates and modes of
interaction (Deacon 2006).
The fact that relational properties are separable from intrinsic properties
means liquidity can be realized in many different ways; different micro-config-
urations of the same molecules can demonstrate liquidity, as can different
kinds of molecules altogether. As Deacon writes,

Liquid properties supervene5 on lower-order properties, including their

interaction effects, and are therefore entirely determined by them. And
yet we require a separate explanation for the fact that these properties
are also to some extent independently converged upon despite a diver-
sity of substrates. Liquid properties reveal an independence from the
details of matter and energy with ascent in scale, even though these
details contribute to the particular values of liquid behavior parameters.
deacon 2006

The relational characteristic of liquidity (and other homeodynamic proper-

ties) explains why liquidity requires a separate explanation from merely
pointing to intrinsic constituent properties. It is the interaction dynamics of
components which determines the properties of liquidity.

5 According to David Chalmers (1996), in a supervenience relationship there can be no upper-

level property change without some kind of lower-level change. While noting property differ-
ences between levels, supervenience claims that fixing lower-level facts simultaneously fixes
higher-level facts. Supervenience as a concept is meant to remove any sense of mystery sur-
rounding the high-level phenomena; it eliminates the idea that something extra is going on.
50 chapter 3

The logic of morphodynamic emergence is built upon interactions that pit
two or more homeodynamic tendencies against each other. Often called self-
organizing or self-simplifying systems, an example of this class of emergent
phenomena is a whirlpool in a stream. The self-organization of morphody-
namics can be characterized as ((Homeodynamics)+iteration). There are two
conditions for such interactions. First, the system must experience a constant
source of outside perturbation. Second, the systems geometry of causal inter-
action must force two or more homeodynamic tendencies of constraint dissi-
pation to repeatedly interfere with each another, the results being iterated in a
kind of feedback loop. When these conditions hold, organization at a higher
level can arise. This higher-level organization represents the most efficient way
to dissipate lower level constraints, as the feedback constantly piles up the
results of previous interactions (a compound interest effect).
Morphodynamic systems are not organized according to any force or law
there is no law of whirlpools that needs to be articulated to understand the
phenomenon. So why does the higher-level organization repeatedly and
robustly appear, often in very different substrates (weather patterns, water in a
stream)? In systems where outside perturbation causes parts of the system to
continually interact with each other, from a statistical point of view, the vast
majority of specifiable behaviors exhibiting any degrees of freedom would be
matched by their opposites. No large-scale tendencies of behaviors would
develop. But when certain features in the overall organization of the system
slightly constrain the possible interactions present, some behaviors will be can-
celled out by their opposites less frequently (and note the negative logic of this
characterization). As a picture of this, recall the common explanation given for
why toilets flush in a clockwise direction in the Northern hemisphere: it is due
to the slight rotational effect of the turning of the earth on the individual water
molecules. This effect, however slight, constrains movement in one direction
slightly more than it constrains movement in the opposite direction; in the
context of the repetitive, competitive dynamics of too much water trying to go
down a pipe, this bias can create order. The order arises as most of the compet-
ing movements cancel each other out, and the movement slightly less opposed
begins to dominate. Since the circular causal structure of the dynamics of
interaction mean the results of the past are fed-forward to affect the present,
these slightly less opposed ways of dissipating constraint will gradually bias
the entire systems organization. Though the initial occurrence of these less-
opposed behaviors of constraint dissipation is purely a matter of chance, the
overall pattern of constraint dissipation will be predictable and robust. In
morphodynamics, something irreversible happens...[t]he propagation and
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 51

amplification of form and constraint result in asymmetric emergent con-

straints that converge toward global attractors (Graves 2009).

Properties such as function, information, meaning, reference, representation,
agency, purpose, sentience, and value first arise in the natural world with
teleodynamic emergence. The most profound examples of teleodynamics are
biological evolution and human thought. In far-from-equilibrium conditions,
teleodynamic systems arise as two or more morphodynamic, self-organizing
systems become mutually self-supporting. They become correlated with each
other by restraining the others tendency towards dissipation, either by main-
taining the others particular dynamic architecture, or maintaining the far-
from-equilibrium conditions they need to exist. Importantly, it is the relationship
of constraint interdependence itself that is preserved in such systems; neither
the specific material/energetic components of the correlated states, nor even
the specific morphodynamic systems themselves, need be preserved. Because
of this flexibility in component processes and parts, teleodynamic systems can
evolve; they are capable of exploring possibilities for constraint interrelation.
Alternative versions of a teleodynamic system can be sampled randomly as
long as the parts continue to constrain each other, and arrangements that
more effectively do so given their context will replace alternatives.
To explain how mutually beneficial constraints can explore possibilities,
Deacon offers an analogy taken from the process of writing his book:

Though my fingers never evolved for linguistic communication, the

moment I began to use them to type words on a keyboard, they came to
function for this end...the constraints of linguistic communication by
computer fit with the constraints of finger movement control...The
potential of my fingers to assume this function was simply not excluded
by the constraints they acquired due to natural selection...It didnt
require work to bring this function into existence for the simple reason
that this convergence of constraints wasnt excluded (2012, 542).

The possibility for fingers to be used to communicate via computer is not elim-
inated by the constraints of either finger or keyboard architecture. This is a

6 It is very hard to follow the logic of teleodynamic interactions from a verbal presentation,
though I will attempt in what follows to present it clearly. Deacon and Sherman have produced
a short video demonstration of an autogen, which is helpful to grasp the concepts involved,
as well as their interdependence. [See]
52 chapter 3

picture of the way teleodynamic systems evolve, as randomly generated fea-

tures that arise in a system may, in some contexts, contribute features and dis-
positions that lead to system preservation better than others. Since these novel
features and dispositions that contribute to survival are not designed into the
system according to a model or plan, but are merely not eliminated from the
system, we should consider their role in the system as exemplifying a general
type or a function. For example, a variety of kinds of sensory equipment can
facilitate environmental awareness for an organism, including equipment that
sees, hears, and touches. These randomly originated features are not eliminated
because they facilitate sensitivity, but they are not designed for what they spe-
cifically do. The abstract and unspecified nature of the class of such novel con-
tributions to constraint preservation is what is referred to by terms such as
function, and purpose.
Though it doesnt require work to explore alternative arrangements of con-
straints (that happens by accident), when alternative versions of interrelated
morphodynamic processes are in competition for thermodynamic resources,
those that represent more effective self-preservation in their context will
replace others. This drives these systems towards fit interrelatedness with their
environmental context. Growth in fitness is the heart of teleodynamic work,
and it describes the growing variety and fitness of organisms to their environ-
ments, and the growth and fitness of arguments and thought processes to what
needs to be explained or solved.
Significantly, Deacon notes that in some teleodynamic systems certain parts
of the system can become bottlenecks of constraint, widely biasing the dynam-
ics of the entire system. Such bottlenecks can function as a kind of system
memory if they are faithfully reproduced, storing constraints on system behav-
ior. An example of such a bottleneck is the dna found in biological organisms.
These bottlenecks of constraint, if they can vary to some degree, may produce
different versions of system dynamics, some of which may out-reproduce other
versions. The combination of variation in the memory component, and envi-
ronmental selection pressures on the different products of constraint, means
such a dynamic can explore the possibilities of system organization. The differ-
ential preservation of constraints produces contextually useful, functional vari-
ants with respect to something else their environment. The variations of stored
memory can be viewed as representing features relevant to the systems persis-
tence. Thus, semiotic processes can arise in teleodynamic systems.7
The boundary of a single teleodynamic system is extended in space and
time. In the case of simple biology, the teleodynamic unit is a lineage of

7 Semiosis will be explicated in the next major section of this paper.

Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 53

organisms, not a single organism. Though teleodynamic phenomena like bio-

logical organisms and intentional human agents are conventionally thought of
as materially bounded, they are defined by a fundamental incompleteness, a
perpetually updated relational connection to something else. This something
else is their own future interactions with their environment. The circular cau-
sality of their dynamics, their ability to re-enter informational components
into that circular causality, and their potential to vary is what gives them their
future-and-other-oriented organization. Discordant alternatives to their orga-
nization with respect to these characteristics will fail to persist. Rather than
being designed positively to achieve their target state, teleodynamic phenom-
ena fall toward their target state through a process of exploration and selec-
tion-producing feedback. The selection dynamic in teleodynamics can be
compared to the canceling dynamic of self-undermining chaos leading to sta-
ble dynamic patterns in homeo- and morpho-dynamics.

Each type of emergent phenomena homeo-, morpho-, and teleo-dynamics
is the result of interaction and relational effects, and what we consider emergent
about them falls out of interaction. Relational properties distributed across the
many interactions of a closed set are averaged in homeodynamics; in morpho-
dynamics a circular causal structure leads to amplification of certain interac-
tion constraints and biases, and in teleodynamics a circular causal structure
combined with a type of memory means interaction constraints and biases are
sampled and re-presented.
Note how in all three emergent categories, the negative causality of what
is left over after other things are canceled what Deacon calls least discor-
dant remainders play a crucial causal role in the production of form. Lawful
behaviors usually studied in reductive scientific accounts are not enough to
account for the form of emergent phenomena; stable relational characteris-
tics and properties emerge when variations of interactions between law-
fully-behaving parts cancel each other out (homeodynamics), selectively
amplify as a result of what other interactions are canceled (morphodynam-
ics), and become interdependent, explore variations, and are selected from


As Deacon has pointed out, the memory component of teleodynamic systems

requires semiotic analysis. Semiosis, particularly as it is conceived by American
54 chapter 3

philosopher Charles S. Peirce (18391914),8 is not just a study of reference, but

is part and parcel of a phenomenological and epistemological standpoint built
around the action of signs. I will focus on two critical aspects of semiotics:
Peirces analysis of the signs into three types icons, indexes, and symbols;
and the process of interpretation, which is central to understanding how a
sign acts.
Terrence Deacon has, in his analysis of these three types of signs, contrib-
uted convincingly to their respectability in terms of the sciences, and I will
follow both Peirce and Deacon in explicating them. Further, I will highlight
one of Deacons central themes: that the action of signs results from the fact
that certain dynamic systems interpret. Anything can serve as a sign of some-
thing else; but only certain systems can take some things as standing in a rela-
tion to other things.

Peirces Categories of Signs

A quick word about Peirces phenomenological theory will suffice to ground
our discussion. Peirce categorized the world of phenomenal experience into
three categories; these categories were not proposed to tell us what is in the
objective world independent of the mind, nor were they proposed to catalog
the minds own workings in developing experience. The three categories were
meant to express the three ways a mind can be in relation to its object, and to
express the interweave of mind-dependent and mind-independent relations
which constitute human experience (Deely 2001).
The key to this is signification how one thing refers to another thing for
some third thing. Signification accounts for how we experience our world, as
anything experienced at all is experienced because signification makes pres-
ent one thing through another thing (and this is true even at the level of sense
experience). Corresponding to each of the three categories of experience is a
characteristic kind of sign, embodying experience in the way it represents
something other than itself. Each type of sign captures different aspects of
experience, and brings the mind into relationship with those aspects in the
same way that the sign itself is in relationship with it. Peirce called these three
kinds of signs icons, indexes, and symbols. According to Peirce, none of the
three kinds of signs function as signs unless interpreted. This is what gives a
sign its peculiar, non-causal relationship to its object. Importantly, though
Peirce explained signs with respect to mind, he did not think that semiosis was
limited to just human mental life; he thought it part-and-parcel of biological

8 Key works exemplifying his thought include (Peirce 1998a) and the two-volume collected
papers, (Peirce 1992; Peirce 1998b).
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 55

development and evolution, an insight that has been followed up through the
emerging field of biosemiotics.9

Icons of Qualia
We are all familiar with caricatures of people that represent them by looking
like them in some way; reversing that logic, iconism in Peirces sense is the fact
that an interpreting system takes different things to be the same, despite the
differences between them, even if those differences are merely differences in
time and location.
Deacon gives an illuminating example of this most important type of sign,
the basis for all other signs. He writes,

Consider camouflage, as in the case of natural protective coloration. A

moth on a tree whose wings resemble the graininess and color of the
bark...[can] escape being eaten by a bird if the bird...interprets the
moths wings as just more tree...If the moth had been a little less match-
ing, or had moved, or the bird had been a little more attentive, then any
of the differences between the moth and the tree made evident by those
additional differences would have indicated to the bird that there was
something else present which wasnt just more tree...
Iconism is where the referential buck stops when nothing more is
added...Whether because of boredom or limitations of a minimal ner-
vous system, there are times when almost anything can be iconic of any-
thing else (stuff, stuff, stuff...).
deacon 1997, 746

Icons are not a feature of the universe; they are a feature of experience, which
interpreting systems create out of the individual elements of the universe.
Iconism turns a universe of infinite, individual, never-repeating, unrelated dis-
juncts into things exhibiting self-similarity, and from this field of self-similarity
the ground of experience all further discriminations of reality flow (Peirce
The fact that icons create the necessary background for all other determi-
nate experiences is related to an insight of Gregory Bateson (2000/1972): we
only know the differences between things that we presuppose as most basic;
substances are the basic things that we dont know, yet presuppose as the
ground for differentiation. Just as a physical map is a systematic way of distin-
guishing changes in features that are left undetermined and undefined by the

9 See Barbieri (2007).

56 chapter 3

map, when we desire to get to the bottom of signifying relationships, we find

the differences between things are referenced in relationship to icons which in
themselves remain undistinguished.
For Peirce each individual qualitative experience in each sensory domain is
composed of icons, and acts as the background against which different regis-
tered experiences are noticed. Having a continuous and ongoing experience of
the color red, without the experience of anything else, is not registered as red,
but as the background against which the experience of something other than
red can be had. An icon refers by providing space for something else to be
noted; an icon refers in the same way zeros count. A zero is a number, but a
number of a peculiar type; it serves as a placeholder for some potential value,
but in itself does not indicate any value. Similarly, icons are the default kind of
reference; they are the ground from which other reference flows, but they
themselves suggest an undistinguished class, an unproblematic expectation,
an empty set, a field of similarity.

Indexes of here-now Interactions

If an icon serves as a kind of placeholder, creating the ground for potential
experience by registering undistinguished self-sameness, an index is the form
of reference that turns potential experience into experiences had; it references
an actual, here-now interaction; it registers known reality. As something exists
in its reaction or relation to something else, it can index those things. Consider
the pain of being hit in the nose. Against the background iconism of whatever
a nose feels like when it is not hit,10 pain indexes some contact, here and now;
it says that something has happened, something has changed. The product of
an index in the mind is to register difference, change (Peirce 1998a).
Indexes are most commonly thought of as associations, and associative learn-
ing is how both animals and humans learn indexes. Associations in themselves
have no clear connection to causality; that something is associated with some-
thing else does not mean they are causally connected. Yet as a first draft for regis-
tering experience, indexes are those associations that allow us to connect things
to each other, whether correctly or incorrectly. There are natural indices that are
causally connected to their object (i.e. the symptom of a disease), and non-natural
indices that are constructed for the purpose of indicating something (i.e. a weath-
ervane). With human-constructed indices, the ground of reference is selected
so that it clearly indexes something for some purpose. Natural indices are more
vague, with multiple possible grounds of reference (Rappaport 1999, 625).

10 And note that this feeling is precisely the iconic, unindexed, unfelt, but necessary qualita-
tive referential ground from which distinguishable feeling appears.
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 57

Indexes can be chained to one another, producing more and more distant
connections between their referents. This is the heart of the method of train-
ing animals to do more and more complex tricks by gradually increasing the
intermediate steps between a stimulus and a reward, the first in a series of
complicated behaviors can become an index of the reward (Deacon 2003c).

Symbols of Abstracted General Habits

As some items of experience exist in systematic relations with other things,
they can be represented symbolically, a form of reference that refers neither by
a quality it shares with its object, nor by virtue of an associative connection
with its object. Symbolic reference depends on the isomorphism between two
systems of behaviors the systemic behavior of natural relations in experi-
ence, and the systematic use of symbols constructed to be in relation to each
other. A particular symbol-token points to a particular object by occupying a
node in a network of symbol-tokens that mirrors the node that the object
occupies in its actual relations (Peirce 1998a).
Symbolic reference is a system of exchange between two domains involv-
ing a third thing, the way the domains are related to each other (J.E. Smith
1968, 27). Deacon has analyzed symbolic reference by comparing the semiotic
perspective of Peirce and the experimental results of Ape Language Research
(alr), particularly the work of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.11 His concludes that

...although a symbol token can be a simple object or action that is with-

out similarity to or regular physical correlation with its referent, it main-
tains its fluid and indirect referential power by virtue of its position
within a structured set of indexical relationships among symbol tokens...
[I]ts representational power is dependent on being linked with other
symbols in a reflexively organized system of indexical relationships. How
we come to know the meaning and referential use of symbols involves
two interdependent levels of correlational relationships. We individually
and collectively elaborate this system by learning how each symbol token
both points to objects of reference and (often implicitly) points to other
symbol tokens (and their pointings).
deacon 2003c, 89, italics mine

Perhaps the simplest example of symbolic reference is found in the way a

street map refers. One recognizes something is a map of ones neighborhood
by noting the similarities of relations distributed across all the individual

11 See Deacon (1997), Savage-Rumbaugh (1986).

58 chapter 3

elements of the map, compared to the relations found distributed across all
the individual elements of the neighborhood one is in. No individual elements
of a map identifies what it refers to; that this particular X represents the inter-
section of Brighton Ave. and Cambridge St. is not made obvious by anything
inhering in the X itself. It is the position of the X in relation to a host of other
represented elements on the map, when compared to the environment, which
allows me to say I am at the intersection of Brighton Ave. and Cambridge St.
Formal mathematical systems give another example of symbolic reference.
When defining mathematical objects, a set of axioms might use everyday
words like point and line, but their definition within the formal system is not
given by what we mean by those words but rather is implicit in the totality of
all propositions in which they occur. The connection between the terms of the
formal system and what we mean by it is made only through interpretation,
where individual components of the formal system are compared as part of a
system to the individual elements of mathematical reality. Hofstadter (1979)
gives a great example. When discussing a set of historical mathematical postu-
lates meant to define something very simple and basic to all mathematics,
Hofstadter changes the key words in the postulates from what they normally
are to other terms. He then asks the reader to figure out what the postulates are
meant to describe, only by their abstract relational definitions. This demon-
strates compellingly how symbolic reference works. In the paragraph that fol-
lows, can you tell what the terms refer to?

We will replace [the normal term] with the undefined term djinn, a word
that comes fresh and free of connotations to our mind. Then [the] five
postulates place five restrictions on djinns. There are two other unde-
fined terms: Genie, and meta. The five postulates are: 1. Genie is a djinn;
2. Every djinn has a meta (which is also a djinn); 3. Genie is not the meta
of any djinn; 4. Different djinns have different metas; 5. If Genie has X,
and each djinn relays X to its meta, then all djinns get X. Peano hoped
that his five restrictions on the concepts Genie, djinn, and meta were
so strong that if two different people formed images in the minds of the
concepts, the two images would have completely isomorphic structures
(1979, 2167).12

If icons of qualia have no intrinsic meaning beyond themselves, and signify

nothing but the potential for indication; and if indexes give instances of

12 If you go to the trouble of following the postulates, you might, in an aha moment, see
that they match our natural conception of the counting numbers, starting with 0.
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 59

factual, here-now interactions, symbols are the form of reference that carries
the intellectual component of experience, the intelligibility of experience.
Since symbolic signification relies on similarities between patterns of things,
not things in their uniqueness, symbolic reference can bring about the achieve-
ment of some purpose towards classes of things or behaviors. Consider scien-
tific laws of nature, which exemplify symbolic reference. No law of nature
points only to some event that once occurred in the past, but to what will
surely happen in the future, if certain conditions are fulfilled. Symbols repre-
sent the patterned, the general, the rational; they register the rules of engage-
ment for our experience.
Peirce notes that symbols, besides representing general, patterned aspects
of nature, create general, patterned behaviors for symbol-users in the world.
Symbolic language produces effects in symbol-users that apply to future behav-
ior towards classes of things. For example, Peirce notes that giving is a transfer
of ownership, applying across a class of actions, and not a matter of movement
in a specific case; to transfer ownership causes implications for future behav-
ior; it is the result of a symbolic convention of social behavior. Consider further
the corporation, the existence of which is mediated through symbolic refer-
ence; it is a general, habitual, pattern of human interactions, a symbolic reality
that has future consequences in both the world of physical events and mental
states, though not being either exclusively (Dewey 1958). So in addition to the
fact that habits of nature are registered by symbolic reference, symbolic refer-
ence constitutes habits of symbol-users.

Deacon puts great emphasis on the importance of interpretation in his discus-
sion of semiotics. His reasoning is, if it is the case that there is nothing inhering
in a sign-vehicle that makes it a sign, then all the work to make a sign-vehicle a
sign comes from the side of interpretation. Sign-vehicles dont do anything;
they do not act. He writes concerning iconic signs:

Usually, people explain icons in terms of some respect or other in which

two things are alike. But the resemblance doesnt produce the iconicity...
The interpretive step that establishes an iconic relationship is essentially
prior to this, and it is something negative, something that we dont do. It
is, so to speak, the act of not making a distinction...
To clarify the shift in emphasis I want to make from the relationship to
the process behind it...what makes the moth wings iconic is an interpre-
tive process produced by the bird, not something about the moths wings.
Their coloration was taken to be an icon because of something that the
60 chapter 3

bird didnt do. What the bird was doing was actively scanning bark, its
brain seeing just more of the same (bark, bark, bark...). What it didnt do
was alter this process (e.g., bark, bark, not-bark, bark...). It applied the
same interpretive perceptual process to the moth as it did to the bark. It
didnt distinguish between them, and so confused them with one another.
This established the iconic relationship between moth and bark.
deacon 1997, 746, italics mine

Keeping in mind that interpretation is the key to the action of signs, I want to
clarify some distinctions concerning interpretation. There are at least three
terms used in the semiotic literature to discuss a halo of ideas surrounding
interpretation interpretation itself, interpreters, and interpretants. I believe at
least one more term is justified, which I will call interpretant-vehicles. This
means there are at least 4 terms that capture different ideas that all contribute
to the concept of interpretation. I will outline the concepts captured by each
of these ideas as I plan to use them, with examples taken from the semiotic
First, an interpreter is, in the language of systems theory, the dynamic sys-
tem whose functioning and processes provides the background physical
grounds for interpretation to occur. An interpreter can exist apart from any
interpretation; to note an interpreter is merely to acknowledge the physical
location and organized processes where interpretation is occurring. To use an
example that I will continue to refer to in this section, imagine a thermometer
where differences of temperature affect the relative expansion of mercury. The
interpreter of the thermometer would be that dynamic system that reads the
thermometer. It might be, for example, some person who would differentially
respond to the different states of the thermometer.
Second, interpretation results from a history of engagement with two things
where one is determined to be isomorphic with the other along some dimen-
sion. Peirce, who used the term interpretant to cover examples of interpreta-
tion as I am using the term here, speaks of an interpretant as being like an
interpreter who says that a foreigner says in his language the same thing that
he himself says. To translate, one must know two languages, and conclude sen-
tence A in language X is the same as sentence B in language Y. Interpretation
necessarily involves living in two worlds at once, seeing two things at once,
such that a comparison can be made, and (perhaps) an action taken that dem-
onstrates the one thing as being the same as the other thing.
In our thermometer example, interpretation is the act of taking the relative
height of mercury as an indication of the relative temperature of the environ-
ment. Prior experiences of changes in mercury expansion as compared to
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 61

changes in ambient temperature have convinced the interpreter that one can
be used as a guide to the other. The thermometer now stands for something
besides itself; the relational change in height is taken as being the same as the
relational change in temperature. Prior to being read, a thermometer is a phys-
ical object involved in dynamic relations only. When read, it has become a
sign, due to an act of interpretation. Note that a particular act of interpretation
may be incorrect the thermometer might be broken. But due to a pattern
noticed in prior engagements with both thermometers and temperature, the
two are taken to be isomorphic with each other (Deely 1990).
Third, an interpretant is a specific, here-now result of interpreting one thing
as signifying another thing. It is this term that is the source of the most confu-
sion in the semiotic literature, because it is often given double-duty (even by
Peirce), conflated with interpretant-vehicle as I will explicate that term. I pro-
pose that we should consider the interpretant as the action taken that demon-
strates that one thing has been taken as the same as another thing. Thus, an
interpretant is the meaning, the outcome of interpretation (Deely 1994). When
the discoverers of the Rosetta Stone first translated Egyptian by way of Greek,
if the Stone had happened to record Egyptian recipes, an interpretant of the
Egyptian recipes might be the actual creation of a particular Egyptian dish for
the first time in three thousand years. Or it might be merely the imagined smell
in the translators mind of the delightful dish described, complete with mouth-
watering. Or it might be the decision not to record the relevant passages in a
journal, since the passage was considered trivial in content. In each case, the
interpretant is some produced outcome that represents some respect in which
two things are seen as being related to each other. In the case of the Rosetta
Stone recipes, the two things seen as being related are the markings on a stone
constituting known Greek, and the markings on the stone constituting unknown
Egyptian; the outcome is the different decisions resulting from taking one as
the other, such as a way to prepare food based on a 3,000 year old Egyptian
recipe. The interpretant is the way some comparison between two things is
brought into a kind of unity of completion in some third thing, some outcome
in which they both participate.
This view of what Peirce meant at least sometimes by interpretant explains
why he says the interpretant is a sign itself, able to be taken up in future semio-
sis. A selection among possible alternative responses is made by the interpreter
to make this the interpretant of the object rather than that. The action that is
the interpretant can itself be interpreted. We can look at the interpretant for
clues as to what the object of the sign was, and in what respect that object was
taken. The interpreter contributes to the process of making interpretants by
making choices as to how to construct the interpretant.
62 chapter 3

In terms of the thermometer story Ive been telling, the fact that a relative
rise in mercury is taken as being coordinated with a change in relative ambient
temperature says nothing about how this correlation affects the interpreter.
The interpretant would be the specific behavioral modification that results
from reading the temperature, taken from a pool of possible expectations and
behavioral modifications that could potentially result. Is a change in mercury
height taken as a sign to turn on an air conditioner? Plant crops? Move to a
different climate for a period of time? Investigate a possible malfunction of the
thermometer? Launch a space shuttle? Do nothing? Each of these could be the
case, and each serves as a sign for some later act of interpretation that attempts
to figure out what the sign was about, what object was taken in what respect.
Fourthly and finally, we reach the interpretant-vehicle. This concept is neces-
sary to tease apart the two uses Peirce put the word interpretant to.13 An inter-
pretant-vehicle is the physical, structural, embodied connection between two
domains that suggests and enables all interpretants, interpretations, and inter-
preters. It is the ground upon which the sign is seen to be related to something
else. In a French-English dictionary, the interpretant-vehicle is the architecture
of an entire book where French words are placed opposite English words.
Something about the physical structure of the interpretant-vehicle suggests
that an interpretant should be created to account for the physical arrange-
ment. Consider the Rosetta Stone again; the physical fact that the lines of
Egyptian figures were engraved on the stone in an isomorphic way with the
lines of Greek text suggested to the interpreters that the lines of Egyptian be
taken as saying the same thing as the lines of Greek, allowing an interpretant
to be created which acted as the mediating relationship between the two.
Importantly, interpretant-vehicles do their work independent of the content
they signify; there is something about their physical orientation in space and
time that enables their being taken together (Deely 1990).
The interpretant-vehicle structurally connects independent domains; it is a
kind of coding, and does not change relative to the different uses it is put in
creating interpretants. In the thermometer example Ive been using, the inter-
pretant-vehicle is the physical fact that a scale of numbers representing air
temperature is placed next to a tube of mercury, where the height of the mer-
cury corresponds to a different number on the scale. A thermometer joins two

13 At times Peirce describes the interpretant as the objective element of the situation involv-
ing representation of one by another, which I think is in conflict with the conception of
interpretant just articulated, though it must be said that Peirce is very difficult to interpret
at times, and the interpretant I have just offered for this theme in his writings may be
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 63

worlds through a code; correlational rules connect a change in mercury height

to a change in air temperature. Hofstadter (1979) notes the invariability of the
genetic code embodied in trna and ribosomes, relative to the different combi-
nations of nucleic acids linked by the code to amino acids in proteins. This
invariable code is ultimately responsible for the referential nature of genes.
To summarize this section on the use of different terms surrounding inter-
pretation, we note that it involves (a) some physical fact that connects two
domains according to a code (the interpretant-vehicle) (b) which grounds cer-
tain expectations, acts, and habits of behavior (the interpretant) (c) of some
system in an environment (the interpreter). When the interpreter (d) treats one
system of relationships as being isomorphic with another (interpretation), (e)
one domain is used by the interpreter as a sign of the other domain (semiosis).

Important Ideas from Other Theorists

I said at the beginning of this chapter that I would be using the work of a few
other theorists who have helped us think about emergence and semiosis, par-
ticularly as they might apply to religious communities. Three of the four I will
mention were influenced by the pioneering work of mathematician John von
Neumann (1966), who first attempted to capture the logic of biological evolu-
tion by noting the interplay of physical processes and symbolic encoding. I will
not attempt to explain the work of each of these theorists in full; rather, I will
focus on a specific idea they introduce that will help us understand the emer-
gence of human sociality.

Semantic Closure
Howard Pattee14 was one of the first theorists to follow up on Von Neumanns
theories concerning the dynamics of evolving processes. To introduce his
thought, let us note that two contradictory demands are placed on self-
organizing, teleodynamic phenomena such as life. One demand is that of
persistence; such a system must demonstrate continuity and self-identity of
processes across time. The other demand is that the system must demonstrate
intelligently changing behavior. Together, this means a dynamic system that is
conservative and repetitious must also be flexible and interactive. Pattee has
argued that there is only one possible way for those two competing demands
to be met in a system a persistent yet potentially varying symbolic memory

14 Most helpful have been (Pattee 1969; Pattee 1972; Pattee 1982a; Pattee 1982b; Pattee 1995;
Pattee 2000; Pattee 2005; Pattee 2007).
64 chapter 3

component must be linked in a closed causal loop with dynamic, material pro-
cesses that interact with a larger environment. He calls this closed loop of sym-
bolic and dynamic processes semantic closure. Pattee has argued that this
concept is the key logical principle put forward by Von Neumann. The closed
semantic loop is what in fact defines the self in self-replication.
Pattee has strongly criticized two important and influential perspectives on
life and mind that only emphasize either material embodiment or symbolic
function. He has argued against the perspective of Dynamic Systems Theorists
(dst), who suggests that the only model required to understand life is a math-
ematically-governed physical-law model, and against the perspective of func-
tionalists and computationalists, who disregard materiality as that which
function and computation should be abstracted from, not related to. As Pattee
sees it, the problems in the approaches of the alternative schools of compu-
tationalism and dst are not their obvious weaknesses, but their misleading
strengths: they both have the ability to model powerfully the processes under
discussion. On the one hand, a logical or computer model of life can mimic
everything that can be described using language, lending support to the
approach of computationalism. On the other hand, everything composing a
symbol system is composed of matter, obeying the laws of physics and chemis-
try, lending support to the approach of the physical reductionist.
Yet each side is incomplete in itself for modeling life, which always involves
both material processes and symbolic reference. Both sides ignore the neces-
sary interrelation. On the one hand, functionalists and computationalists
believe a symbolically-encoded computer simulation is a realization of the
process in question. However, the logical or computer model is not a self-
organized system, and the success of such a model is not demonstrated by
the impact of the models functioning on the persistence of the computer
system that models it. Rather, its success is in the eyes of the modeler, who
interprets the model as being a good picture of a process. On the other hand,
physical reductionists ignore the matter/symbol relationship by believing
that symbols are only illusions that do not play any real role; they argue that
ideally, a complete physical-law model of these systems should replace epi-
phenomenal explanations using symbols. However, this approach cannot
account for the multiply-realized concepts such as function, adaptation, and
selection, which must be read into the systems by outside modelers who
do see and use such symbolic and relational concepts (Rocha 2001). Thus,
neither the pure functionalist, nor the pure Dynamic System Theorist can
account for living things or persons like us. That both approaches can ignore
the contribution of the other, and offer what seem on first blush to be com-
plete accounts given their starting points, blinds each side to the fact that a
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 65

complementary approach is needed to gain insight into living and mental

Pattee argues that the behavior of biological entities is a result of physical
law and symbolically-encoded rules. Rocha (2001) says rules are context
dependent constraints which affect the behavior and success of agents in spe-
cific environments, and...only make sense in these environments. Consider a
biological entity. A rule contributing to its behavior above and beyond physi-
cal law would be a particular encoded initial condition, selected from a wider
pool of theoretically possible encoded initial conditions, that biases its ongo-
ing dynamic development in a direction permitted but not determined by
physical law. A lineage of biological organisms develops over time through a
culling of all possible rules to the few that lead to organism persistence in an
environment. Pattee argues that a productive approach to theories of life, evo-
lution and cognition must focus on the complementary contributions of non-
selective law-based material self-organization and natural selection-based
symbolic organization (Pattee 1995). Pattee makes this principle of comple-
mentarity a central point in his thought. For him, both matter and symbol,
laws and rules, play a role in the emergent evolution of living things and men-
tal processes. And this, in a nutshell, is the idea of semantic closure. Semantic
closure is the autonomous closure between the dynamics of the material
aspects and the constraints of the symbolic aspects of a physical organization
(Pattee 1995). Fundamentally, semantic closure involves something that acts as
symbolic memory, as well as a closed pattern of recursive iteration (Rocha and
Hordijk 2005). Symbol strings are transformed by a decoding process into
arrangements of matter, which are transformed by physical laws into dynamic
processes that transform symbol strings by a decoding process into arrange-
ments of infinitum. The symbol/matter complementarity is self-
defining and self-constructing.
Pattee points to biology as an example of this kind of closure. He notes that
a cells behavior is partly defined by symbolic processes having to do with dna
base sequences, which are important for the information they embody (not for
their chemical effects), and partly defined by material dynamics, such as pro-
tein folding (tertiary structure) and protein combinations (quaternary structure).
Pattee goes so far as to define life by its semantic closure. The symbols in such
a system are interpreted dynamically by the very products they specify. No

15 Pattee has noted that the only place the matter-symbol relationship appears in the bio-
logical sciences as now practiced is in theories of the origin of the genetic code. There, the
physical and logical basis of the distinction between matter and symbol, and the question
of how matter and symbol are related, is discussed.
66 chapter 3

external observer needs to interpret them (as is the case with a computers sym-
bolic activity). What the symbols represent comes into view functionally, from
the cells own dynamic interpreting structures (Etxeberria and Moreno 2001).16

Three Criteria of Symbolic Representations

Pattees characterization has inspired others17 to address some of the issues he
leaves undiscussed, such as how we should envision the symbolic dimension.
First, a symbol is a functional term, not a thing; certain things function as sym-
bols. Physically, symbols are material structures exerting limitations on the
many possible ways natural laws could be obeyed they represent selections
from alternative ways laws can be instantiated. They are made up of matter
that always obeys the laws of nature, but in addition represents a constraint to
behavior that could have been otherwise. (This is similar to what Deacon
meant when he said the memory component of a teleodynamic system is a
bottleneck of constraint.) These symbols are often separated from regular
dynamic processes, and thus stored in a way analogous to random access
memory in a computer. Symbols function as a kind of shortcut, creating condi-
tions that depend for their fulfillment on material dynamics and lawful habits
of nature. For example, the genetic blueprint of an organism is not a descrip-
tion of that organism, but something different encoded initial conditions or
constraints for material, developing, self-organizing systems that interact
with the laws of their environment (Rocha 2001). The laws of physics and self-
organizing processes give for free what does not have to be encoded in genes.
In systems that utilize symbolic representation, the symbols material dynam-
ics are largely irrelevant. Their dynamic components do not elicit a response
from the dynamic components of the system. Rocha and Hordijk call this char-
acteristic of a symbol dynamic incoherence, and note it is a relative, not an
absolute concept; the lack of direct influence of symbols on material dynamics
is relative to their much greater indirect influence on material dynamics when
a framework of stable decoding machinery mediates between the two. The
behaviors symbols produce are significant and functional, since they represent

16 Some may think that using the word interpret here is a misuse of the term, which should
be reserved for human mental life. Pattee, to the contrary, argues that biological life is the
first time in nature that the term interpret can and should be used, human mental inter-
pretation being a refinement and development of this biological achievement. See Pattee
(1982a; 2000).
17 The work guiding my thinking here includes (Rocha and Hordijk 2005; Rocha 2001;
Etxeberria and Moreno 2001; Moreno 1998; Etxeberria and Moreno 2001; Moreno and
Umerez 2000).
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 67

a selection from a range of possibilities. It is the symbols information value

what choice of initial conditions it represents when implemented that is
most relevant to the system. Choices made via selection between possible
alternatives are part-and-parcel of what it means for an organism to evolve.
Symbol function is internal to an organism, defining it in critical ways, and not
an anthropomorphic projection.
Rocha and Hordijk (2005) have laid out three key criteria for determining
whether a structure is functioning as a symbol:18

1. The syntactic structure of information in a symbol can be accessed and

utilized without reference to its content, and is implemented in non-
reactive structures. This is the concept of dynamically incoherent memory.
2. The semantic content of information in a symbol is how its structure is
translated to be used to construct dynamic configurations; symbols encode
alternative initial conditions for a dynamical system-environment cou-
pling. This is the concept of a construction code.
3. Symbols guide the construction of material structures and processes
existing under the constraints of self-organization, and are pragmati-
cally selected in an evolutionary process. This criterion represents self-
organization and selection.

These criteria give specific guidelines for assessing when something is func-
tioning symbolically in a system; we will use these to interpret the dynamics of
religious community life in the next chapter.

Strange Loops
Like Pattee, Douglas Hofstadter19 believes living things exist because of a for-
mal interconnection of an encoded dimension and a non-encoded or natural
dimension. This, in fact, defines what a self is. Living things, according to
Hofstadter, demonstrate a new type of top-down causal efficacy. Unlike Pattee,
he extends this perspective to the dynamics of human consciousness. He calls
such self-referring dynamics strange loops, and says that the I the first-per-
son subjective, conscious experience is a strange loop.
He describes strange loops as an abstract loop in which, in the series of
stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of
abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in
a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive upwards shifts turn out to give

18 Their term for this is material representation.

19 See (Hofstadter 1979; Hofstadter 2007).
68 chapter 3

rise to a closed cycle (2007, 102). Hofstadter believes the most enlightening
strange loop to investigate is seen in the self-reference found in the Gdel
Incompleteness Theorem (git) of 1931. The critical feature of this theorem is
its incorporation of a self-referential mathematical statement, which in the
context of Gdels proof has a similar effect as the paradoxical statement
uttered by Epimenides the Cretan, All Cretans are liars.20 Thus, the theorem
involves a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop, where the paradox is the
result of self-reference.
Instead of walking through the entire logical construction of the proof, I
want to highlight key aspects of it relevant to a discussion of semiosis and
emergence. The first is discussed by Hofstadter, and it has to do with the role of
interpretation. Hofstadter writes that the formal mathematical system Gdel
worked with the Principia Mathematica (pm) of Russell and Whitehead
though terribly cumbersome, had enormous power to talk about whole num-
bers in fact, to talk about arbitrarily subtle properties of whole numbers
(2007, 113). What does Hofstadter mean when he says a formal system can talk
about whole numbers? Formal mathematical systems are made up of symbols
and rules governing the manipulation of symbols. For them to have meaning,
such manipulations need to be interpreted as representing computations
involving whole number; the dynamics of such a system dont interpret them-
selves. A machine can follow these rules for manipulating symbols, without
having any idea what they mean in a mathematical sense. We have to inter-
pret them as mimicking the dynamics of mathematical reasoning. As Gdel
(1965) notes, determining the truth of a mathematical statement requires more
than demonstrating a proposition has a certain, decidable formal structure; it
also requires some extra mathematical element concerning the psychology of
the being which deals with mathematics. Thus, to claim that some manipula-
tion of a formal system creates mathematically relevant results is to create an
interpretant;21 the interpreter decides precisely how the formal manipulation
of symbols maps onto mathematical objects and their relational interactions.

20 The mathematical statement that Gdel produced reads, when interpreted into English,
This statement of the formal system of Principia Mathematica has no proof in the formal
system of Principia Mathematica. Thus, to prove the statement true would paradoxically
make it false; to be unable to prove it true would be to paradoxically demonstrate its truth.
Later theorists, jumping on Gdels self-referential trick, learned to produce cousins such
as, Some proof in the formal system of Principia Mathematica exists which proves me
true. These sentences, by merely asserting [their] own provability, actually become prov-
able (Hofstadter 1979, 542, 709).
21 Recall I defined an interpretant as a specific, here-now constructed result that is the
effect of taking up one thing as another thing.
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 69

This background information is important to the Incompleteness Theorem

because Gdel invented a code (the Gdel code) that allows theorems about
numbers in the formal language of pm to be turned into numbers, and vice
versa. This trick allowed some particular numbers to say things like This
statement in pm has no proof, when interpreted at a higher level as a result of
the code. Thus, he made it possible for investigations into properties of num-
bers using pm to be investigations into theorems of pm at the same time. Notice
that this curious result is due to the action of interpretation. Contrary to what
we might think, both the lower-level investigation into number theory using
pm (which is what pm was designed for) and using pm to make higher-level,
meta-statements about theorems of pm (which Gdel brilliantly hijacked pm
to do) result from different possible ways to interpret the same symbols on a
page. There is nothing in the symbols themselves that determine to what they
refer. That is always in the eye of the mathematician, who is the interpreter.
But if flexibility in interpreting symbols is the key to Gdels theorem, self-
referentiality is the key to a new kind of mathematical truth that Hofstadter
thinks mirrors what a self is, and this is the second key point relevant to semi-
otic emergence. How did Gdel pull off the trick of self-referentiality, the abil-
ity of a meta-level statement of pm to say something like This sentence...?
The crucial mathematical sentence in Gdels theorem didnt actually say the
equivalent of the English word this; rather, it described a typographical entity
that was identical to itself. Hofstadter offers an analogous English sentence
(first developed by W.V.O. Quine) to illustrate how this works. The sentence is:

preceded by itself in quote marks yields a full sentence. preceded by

itself in quote marks yields a full sentence.

The sentence makes a truth claim; to confirm the claim you need to do some-
thing, namely, act on the instructions in the second part of the sentence.
When you have done so, you find that the statement is true, and that the result
is the same as the original. Gdel carefully constructed the mathematical
equivalent of this sentence so that he could make the equivalent of the part
in quotes a number, the other half a statement of number theory in the lan-
guage of pm, all the while keeping in mind that through the Gdel code,
the number was a direct translation of the second half of the statement in the
language of pm.
Following Gdel and Hofstadter, we can identify two significance implica-
tions of this construction. First, using Quines English analogy to think about
the issue, the same string of English letters can function in two different ways,
depending on context: as instructions, and as passive content which the
70 chapter 3

instructions invite us to act upon. This draws attention to the essential role
played by the interpreter. Second, the way these two functional moments of
the string are related to each other means that its truth claim is about itself,
since the curious way it is constructed allows you to interpret the entire string
as saying this sentence.
How is it that at one moment the string can function as data, and at another
moment function as instructions as to how to act on the data? The key is a cue
quotation marks that differently guide the effort of the interpreter. In an
analogous manner, Gdel in his proof exploits a cue: through the Gdel code,
the interpreting mathematician can see the two parts of the statement in the
proof as the same, which then has important interpretive implications. It is
that interpretive agility that is so critical to the proof.
The second significant implication of the logical structure of the git is that
the critical mathematical sentence makes a truth claim about a number, but
which, when translated by the Gdel code, is also a truth claim about itself as
a mathematical sentence. It is not making a truth claim about some other
statement, as would be the case in a mathematical version of a claim such as

Doh! when spoken aloud is a funny exclamation.

In the git, the mathematical claim is about an identical version of itself. It

says, in effect, this sentence, and point to itself as a sentence when it does so.
The moral of the story is that a sufficiently flexible symbol system can be
turned on itself to assess the truth of itself without reference to outside confir-
mation, a possibility created by the act of self-reference. A truthful mathemati-
cal story can be created on the fly. That is the heart of the incompleteness
implicated in mathematical languages by Gdels proof true reference can
be created when what is truthfully referenced are the self-referring entities

Performative Utterances
The strange result of a self-confirming mathematical statement taking advan-
tage of the possibilities of flexible symbol systems has been studied in other
contexts. C.S. Peirce (1998a) analyzed self-referring sentences English sen-
tences, not the mathematical sentences of Gdel and his discussion of them
may shed light on the issue. Peirce first notes that in general, to judge a propo-
sition requires looking to something outside of the sentence for confirmation
or disconfirmation of its truth. If I say, the sky is cloudy, you would need to
look at something other than the proposition probably at the sky to con-
firm its truth. Peirce notes further that the very act of making such a judgment
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 71

as the sky is cloudy creates facts in the world. Just like the cloudy sky is a
datum in the world, my claim the sky is cloudy is a datum in the world. My
proposition, once stated, becomes another fact that can be monitored and
Peirce notes that something strange happens when propositions are made
concerning propositions themselves, not concerning things in the world outside
of propositions. Consider some paradisiacal world, where all the propositions
made about things in the world are true. Then consider that in this context, the
proposition In our world, there exists a false proposition is uttered. Prior to its
uttering, there is no such thing as a false proposition. However, in this paradi-
siacal world, if the above statement is uttered, it becomes necessarily true that
there is a false proposition, and it becomes true because the statement is false.
Precisely because there arent false statements in the world prior to its uttering,
the statement is false, and because of its falsity, there are now false statements
in the world, making it true. As Peirce says, the existence of this proposition
constitutes the certainty that a false proposition is enunciated, although the
assertion of this proposition itself is perfectly true (1998a, sec.10). Its utter-
ance creates truth out of nowhere, so to speak.
In the paradisiacal world, there exists a false proposition performs, enacts,
and constitutes the truth of its claim. By being a proposition about proposi-
tions, it can be true AND false, in two domains, two hierarchic levels, at the
same time. In the real world, where false propositions exist all over the place,
its truth would be in virtue of the falsehood of other propositions; in the para-
disiacal world, its truth would be in virtue of itself as a proposition, since as a
proposition it adds to what is the case about propositions, which is what is under
consideration. In the paradisiacal world, the statement would be false when
applied to the domain of the world outside of itself, and therefore true in the
domain that recognizes itself as part of the world.
Notice how the interpreter is involved, judging the truth claim made in both
cases, whether the proposition is merely true about other propositions, or
whether the proposition is constitutively true. Propositions dont enact them-
selves; interpreters take sentences as claims; they choose to what they will be
applied. This is the heart of Gdels insight concerning mathematics, what
allows Gdel to note the incompleteness of mathematics. Because symbols
are not attached directly to what they reference, as are indexes, they have a
flexibility about them that allows them to be recursive, to be about themselves.
Peirces proposition is about propositions, which makes it possible for an inter-
preter validly to take the proposition as referring to itself, in which case a dif-
ferent comparison than normal is made between the proposition and reality;
reality now includes the proposition. The utterance of the proposition adds
72 chapter 3

information to the world, and it is possible to judge its truth assuming the pres-
ence of that added information at a secondary level or perhaps better, a later
time than at the primary level (at the earlier time of its utterance), when its
reference was conventionally taken to be to things outside of itself. The circu-
lar nature of self-reference creates a location downstream from primary refer-
ence from which virgin, secondary-level claims can flow. According to
Hofstadter, the simplest, tersest articulation of this kind of performative is the
English word, I, as in I am unprovable, or in Peirces example, I am a false
This analysis is importantly related to the logic of performative utterances,
which I referenced in the previous chapter. These are a category of linguistic
statements that J.L. Austin (1962; 1970) notes have a peculiar quality to them.
Though on the surface they look like statements of fact, they are actually a
special kind of statement that does not describe or report anything, is not true
or false in any traditional way, but does something when uttered that makes it
true. To utter a performative is not to describe the doing of something, or to
state that the doing of something has been done, but is rather to do something.
Examples include saying I do in the context of a wedding ceremony, saying I
christen thee H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth in the context of a military dedication,
or when the bartender says, The bar is closed in the context of his place of
employment. To issue such a statement in these circumstances is to perform
an action that makes truth. Searle (1979) argues that the purest form of a per-
formative utterance is one in which a speaker in authority brings about a state
of affairs specified in the propositional content of a performative.
What is the relationship between the creation of truth in a Gdel-like self-
referential mathematical statement, and the actualization of authority in an
Austin-like performative utterance? Both critically rely on the action of inter-
pretation, which thereby creates both truth and authority. The performative
utterances of Gdel rely on a single interpreter interpreting symbols as self-
referring to create truth. The performative utterances of Austin rely on multiple
interpreters agreeing upon (by submitting to) a symbolically-constructed and
shared world, which thereby creates authority. As Searle (1969) points out, per-
formative utterances require constitutive, institutional background rules that
must be submitted to for the performative to take effect. To effect a marriage by
saying I do presupposes marriage as a human institution, a non-natural, non-
required institutional fact, not a brute fact. Obedience to institutional facts
is not required, as is obedience to laws of nature. When a duly designated
employee says, The bar is closed, the authority for that performative comes
from the patrons in the bar who interpret that statement as being authoritative,
who grant the authority of the bartender as in accord with institutional rules,
Emergence And Semiotics A Primer 73

not natural facts. Imagine the employee saying, the bar is closed, and a patron
pulling out a gun and laying it on the table, saying, I say it is open. This patron
is refusing to live by the institutional, conventional, interpreter-dependent rules
that grant a performative its efficacy.22 Performative utterances exemplify the
fact that when one enters an institutional activity by invoking [or following]
the rules of the institution one necessarily commits oneself in such and such
ways, regardless of whether one approves or disapproves of the institution
(1969, 189). (Note the similarity of this claim to Rappaports claim that to enter
into ritual is to publicly commit to the claims made by the ritual.)
Therefore, the key to the authority of a performative utterance, as well as
the ability of self-referring statements to create truth, is the action of the inter-
preter in interpreting symbols. Shared symbols among a community of people
allow social truth to be determined by agreement; taking advantage of the flex-
ibility of symbols to self-refer allows an interpreter to create a locus for estab-
lishing future truth. Both invent new realms for true statements to be explored.


We have covered a lot of ground in this chapter. The critical pieces that are
relevant in the discussion of religious community dynamics have been pre-
sented from different perspectives, with different motivations, and concerning
different subjects. What unites each of them is the claim that a circular causal
architecture and a form of memory that necessarily must utilize some form of
reference is responsible for systems that are self-organizing, self-referencing,
open-ended, and important. Each of the thinkers above believes a teleody-
namic is critical to understanding two of the three most stupefying phenom-
ena in the universe living bodies and human consciousness. Whether this
theoretical edifice will make progress in understanding religion, for some the
third most stupefying phenomena in the universe, is the topic of this book.
With these categories under our belt, I would like to now explicitly connect the
theory of religious dynamics I articulated in the last chapter with the themes
and ideas of this one, demonstrating how emergence theory is relevant to the
study of religion.

22 Hofstadter notes a corresponding example from the world of Gdel and pm. He notes that
Lord Russell, one of the creators of pm, never saw the higher-level meaning that Gdel
created. By an act of will (or perhaps a habit of mind), he wrote off the higher level as
not-existing. That is, as an interpreter, he refused to allow the isomorphic, higher-level
coding to be the ground for interpretants. See Hofstadter (2007, 154).
chapter 4

Religions Emergent Characteristics

Now it is my task to demonstrate how the emergence categories I explained in

the previous chapter map onto religion as it has been conceptualized by other
theorists, as well as in my own account offered in Ch. 2. This chapter, more
than any other in this book, relies on details that might be overly specific for
some readers; they are important for establishing the credibility of my overall
argument, but some may wish to skip this chapter and begin Part Two of the
book, dealing with the emergence of meaning in religion. For those who think
the details might be important, let me say how my argument will proceed.
First, I will propose a picture of how human sociality is emergent, in terms taken
from our primer on emergence and semiotics. I will do this by (a) recognizing
the importance of human culture to my account; and (b) analyzing how human
culture can demonstrate emergent effects. Then, I will specifically characterize
religion as a teleodynamic emergent system utilizing symbolic reference, using
the criteria I developed in the previous chapter. I will analyze religion in terms
of Rocha & Hordijks account of symbols, as well as in terms of semantic
closure and strange loops. This will give the details that motivate the conclu-
sion that religion is a teleodynamic system that takes advantage of symbolic,
encoded memory.

The Importance of Human Culture

I mentioned in the first chapter that both Durkheim and Rappaport place cen-
tral importance on myth and ritual in their account of religion, focusing on
how these continually re-establish religions intense, robust, and meaningful
sociality. Since I find their account of ritual and myth convincing, it seems
important to articulate how the capacities of human culture ground them.
First, in order to address some alternatives, we must ask to what extent the
mythological content and ritual behavior seen in religion is the direct result of
biological evolution. Did we evolve to have mythological beliefs and perform
religious ritual? Or are these side effects of processes and facts that are more
general in their application, and that did not evolve to produce mythological
beliefs and religious ritual? How one answers this question suggests very dif-
ferent understandings of religion. If mythological belief and religious ritual
evolved specifically under biological selection pressure, it suggests that religion

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Religions Emergent Characteristics 75

is, at root, a biological feature that is explained by the role it plays in support-
ing the transmission of genes to the next generation. Like color vision and the
desire for sex, myth and ritual evolved because they support reproduction. On
the other hand, if myth and ritual did not evolve by biological evolution, it sug-
gests either that they appear regularly merely as an unselected side effect of
something that is important for biological survival, like the redness of blood; or
because they hijack our evolved dispositions effectively, as a kind of virus; or
because they create something of value to humans, independent of their role
in transmitting genes (or some combination of all three).
I think the strongest theories of human cognitive development suggest
that mythological beliefs and religious ritual were not selected for biologi-
cally. Rather, they exist as side effects of larger cognitive developments in
our lineage over the last 150,000 years (at the very least). The key cognitive
developments in this period domain-general reasoning, abstraction, con-
ceptual blending, and symbolic reference evolved for reasons other than
producing religion, and the possibility of mythological beliefs and religious
ritual are side effects of these developments. Whether domain-general rea-
soning, etc., have been hijacked to support mythological beliefs and ritual,
or because they create something of value, is a further question that needs
to be addressed.
Domain-general reasoning is the human capacity to reason in a similar man-
ner across many different kinds of problems we are confronted with, such as
the way we are able to similarly navigate sociality, technology, and the natural
world. It is also the ability to allow what we learn in one domain to impact
how we think about another. Mithen (1998) has argued that though humans
have dedicated, domain specific mental capacities that speed up the common
mental activities we perform every day, what is most characteristic about our
minds is our passion for analogy and metaphor, the holistic tendency we have
to build connections across domains. Children play with inert physical objects
while simultaneously pretending these objects can think and relate socially,
are alive and need care, and can participate in conversations. This ability reflects
a fundamental feature of the human mind: we can combine knowledge from
many domains at will, even incorrectly or playfully. The ability to think across
domains and access different mental modules at the same time is the heart of
domain-general reasoning. To pretend a rock is alive and communicative is not
only basic to childrens play, but also to mythological thinking; both represent
our ability to reason analogically in all domains.
Turner and Fauconnier (2002) note a related capacity of human thought,
our ability for abstraction and conceptual blending. We are able to isolate spe-
cific elements and features of some phenomenon, take them out of their
76 chapter 4

original context, and combine them with isolated specific elements from
another domain to create blends that represent new thoughts and multiply
the capabilities of our reasoning capacities. Grady et al. (1999) offer a simple
example: if we take two different mental structures, such as surgeon and
butcher, both of which in and of themselves suggest competence and training
in a given task, and blend them into a new mental structure such as that
surgeon is a butcher, a new implication emerges as a result of the blend
incompetence. Blends of this type support human meaning construction by
allowing uniquely human capacities such as hypothetical and counterfactual
thought, the creation of negatives, mappings of many sorts, the framing of a
problem or question, changeable viewpoint and perspective, and metaphor.
According to Turner and Fauconnier, it is these capacities that have given
humans our higher-order cognitive achievements, such as the understanding
of personal identity and character, the understanding of cause and effect,
grammar and language, category extension and metamorphosis, art, fiction,
music, mathematical and scientific discovery, religious practices, representa-
tion, fashion, advanced social cognition, advanced tool use, etc. This ability
undergirds most of what counts as uniquely human thought, including mytho-
logical thought.
Turner (2003) offers a striking example of how conceptual blends support
concepts of justice, which can then, by virtue of a different conceptual blend,
be transformed into mythology:

Human beings are able to invent concepts like punishment, revenge,

and retribution. These concepts are the result of blending. In each case,
there is an earlier scenario in which a character does something that is
regarded as an offense, and a later scenario in which something is done
to that person. If we took the two scenarios as separate, we would have
two actions, and the second one (killing, inflicting physical pain, lock-
ing someone up, taking money from someone, depriving someone of a
right or a privilege, even yelling at someone) could be regarded as a gra-
tuitous offense, no different from the first. But when we integrate these
two scenarios into one, we compress the two actions into one balanced
unit. This compression does not change the facts of the first scenario,
but it does change their status. The emergent meaning for the integra-
tion network is very rich. While the two scenarios, each on its own,
are offensive, the blend is just, and this has consequences for the two
scenarios themselves: because they sit in this blending network, the
second action is permissible, and the first offense is removed or neutral-
ized or paid for.
Religions Emergent Characteristics 77

Then he suggests,

If we imagine a just punishment blending network in which the first

story has reference to reality but both the second story and the blend are
only hypothetical, then the offending party in the first story counts as
worthy of punishment...Applying this network not to a single person
but instead to all of us in the aggregate, we have the familiar grand story
of guilty or sinful humanity, worthy of punishment. That is one blending
network. Now let us activate alongside that network an altogether differ-
ent story in which a blameless man is crucified. Now we blend guilty or
sinful humanity with the blameless man. In the new hyper-blend, we
have the blameless man from one story but the sins of the human beings
from the other. His crucifixion, according to the logic of the just punish-
ment blending network, becomes recompense for the sins of humanity.
His suffering excuses humanity from bearing the punishment.

Conceptual blending certainly undergirds mythological thought, but it also

undergirds much of human thought. Mythological thought is a possibility that
arises from something more basic about human cognition.
Finally, I want to suggest that what undergirds both of these human capaci-
ties domain-general reasoning and abstraction/conceptual blending is the
human capacity for symbolic reference, which was an earlier cognitive achieve-
ment that has been extensively developed in our species. This capacity very
weakly shared by a select few species besides humans has provided the cog-
nitive scaffolding that allows abstraction and conceptual blends to develop,
which in turn allows domain-general reasoning to develop. Deacon (1997) has
explicated this capacity better than anyone, suggesting symbolic reference not
only supports these just-mentioned capacities, but also directly grounds our
ability to see ourselves dualistically, as composed of body and soul, and to dis-
tinguish between a transcendent world and an immanent world.
As I discussed in the last chapter, the basic idea of symbolic reference is that
some agent develops the capacity to make a comparison between two indepen-
dent, systematically organized patterns of relationships, one under the agents
control, the other less so. Think of how a child learns language. One systematic
pattern, the relationship of words to each other, must be seen as mapping onto
another systematic pattern, the relationships of pertinent things in the world
to each other, and to the child. As word choice and order can be manipulated
more easily than things in the world, the process of learning a language is
learning the socially-agreed-upon way of mapping relationships implicit in
shared experience onto the relationships implicit in the use of words. Word
78 chapter 4

use is adjusted to create a better match with the systematic aspects of expe-
rience. Once this mapping occurs, the system under the agents control
language can be used to guide the behavior of the child with respect to the
world, both in the childs own thoughts, and in the childs communications
with others.
The process I have just described is bigger than language usage, as semioti-
cians have long recognized; biological evolution depends upon a similar pro-
cess, as the pattern of nucleic acids in dna is used to guide the production of
an organism, and thus the interaction of that organism with the environment.
The process of natural selection revises the match between the two systems to
create a better fit. The term semiosis describes all cases where revisable
patterns of relations internal to a system reference relations external to the
system, in order to guide the systems behavior. It also describes the growing
fitness between the two patterns of relations, internal and external to the
system, where the more controllable pattern is used to guide the organisms
interaction with the less controllable pattern.1
Deacon2 claims the capacity for symbolic reference is based upon the devel-
opment of parts of the brain particularly the prefrontal cortex that inhibits
the activity of other parts of the brain, such as associative regions. Symbolic
reference requires being able to create a mapping between two systems of
relationships, and for that to happen, the salience of particular indexes of envi-
ronmental stimuli (i.e. the associative relationship between a ringing bell and
the presence of meat) must be weakened. It is the weakening of indexical rela-
tions performed by the prefrontal cortex that allows a child and not the fam-
ily dog to gain the cognitive distance necessary to see the global mapping
between a system of words and the systematic aspects of experience. This
capacity to suppress certain features of experience to allow other, less obvious
features to come to the foreground, is what also grounds the human capacity
for abstraction and conceptual blending, and thus mythological thinking.
In addition, since our brains are organized for symbolic reference, we have
two abilities relevant to religion. First, we have the ability to symbolize our-
selves as distinct from our bodies. Symbolic reference allows us to live in a
virtual world of linguistically encoded conceptions through which our experi-
ence of the real world is mediated. In this virtual world, we can create narra-
tives about ourselves and our place in the world, our past, our future, and who
we are. This virtual self is clearly distinct from our bodily existence, and

1 See Favareau (2007) for a good introduction to semiotics in its application to biology, not just
human language.
2 Mostly in Deacon and Cashman (2009), but also in Deacon (2003d) and Deacon (1997).
Religions Emergent Characteristics 79

undergirds a powerful sense of our soul distinct from our body. Second, the
bias humans have to learn symbolic language causes us to look for a hidden
pattern of systematicity in natural events, even when these might not exist.
This, Deacon argues, grounds our spiritual beliefs. He writes,

The neuropsychological tendency to incessantly, spontaneously, and

rapidly interpret symbols should express itself quite generally as a predis-
position to look beyond surface correlations among things to find some
formal systematicity, and thus meaning, behind them, even things that
derive from entirely nonhuman sources. Everything is thus a potential
symbol trees, mountains, star patterns, coincidental events...Symbolic
meaning is a function of consciousness and symbols are produced to
communicate. So if the world is seen as full of potential symbols, it must
implicitly be part of some grand effort of communication, and the prod-
uct of mind (2003d).

When we consider the combined accounts of the work of Mithen, Turner and
Fauconnier, and Deacon, I think there is strong evidence that the capacity for
symbolic reference, abstraction/conceptual blending, and domain general rea-
soning define human thought as it is distinct from the mental capacities of our
nearest relatives. The possibility of mythological and religious thinking is a
result of these capacities, and not the result of a biologically-driven, domain-
specific tendency for mythological ideas and concepts.
This is not to say that biology, in the guise of our evolved psychology, is irrel-
evant to religion, however. Human minds are not a blank slate, and religion not
unconstrained by our evolutionary history. On this issue, I am in broad agree-
ment with Kirkpatrick (2008). He has argued (1) that religion is not the direct
result of natural selection due to its effects on biological survival and reproduc-
tive success; (2) we possess no genes for religion, in the sense of producing belief
or behavior unique to religion; and (3) we possess no evolved psychological
mechanisms whose primary adaptive function is/was to produce religion. As an
analogy, we might consider religion as being like sports. It is doubtful we have
any genes that evolved for playing soccer, for example, yet the game is played
and enjoyed almost universally. Its appeal is probably due to the fact that it is
a cultural package that nicely combines evolved physical and psychological
capacities and tendencies. While the ability to play soccer well, in addition to
the capacity to be interested in the game, is probably moderately heritable,
there has never been any direct biological selection pressure for sports.
Kirkpatrick further argues that our evolved psychological tendencies have
guided the evolution of religion in particular ways, channeling its development.
80 chapter 4

He claims that mythological beliefs, though themselves unevolved byproducts

of psychological mechanisms for understanding the natural world, have been
taken up by cultural evolution in service of social relationships defined by
evolved psychological tendencies such as attachment, kinship, social exchange,
coalitions, and dominance hierarchies. Thus, to the degree that religious beliefs
are involved in regulating social dispositions, they will be strongly constrained
towards attachment, kinship, social exchange, coalitions, and dominance hier-
archies. While I would not want to argue that religion reduces to the purpose of
negotiating social realities, that it does negotiate social realities suggests it
evolved culturally as a kind of package, in part because of this ability, and thus
in tandem with our evolved biological dispositions. This will be a theme devel-
oped by David Sloan Wilson, as we will see in the next chapter.
I have talked a lot about the evolution (in whatever domain) of religious
beliefs in the preceding paragraphs. What about the evolution of religious
ritual? Donald Campbell (1974), in an important article on the philosophy of
biology, notes that independent evolutionary processes and by this he means
genetic and cultural evolution might discover the same facts simply because
representing them would be useful for survival, not because there is a causal
connection between the two processes of discovery. He gives the example of
the law of levers, which was discovered by Archimedes 2,000 years ago, and
has guided human construction and engineering tasks ever since. Campbell
notes that the same principle of engineering was discovered by biological evo-
lution, and has been encoded in genes for hundreds of millions of years. It can
be seen in the body construction of any animal such as the jaws of a beetle
that must throw its weight around in any way to accomplish tasks necessary
for survival. Two independent processes of evolution have discovered the same
idea, and have passed it on in their distinctive forms of memory dna, and
cultural education.
This suggests it is not necessary that we assume every cultural manifesta-
tions of the law of levers across the world is due to an evolved mental module
for the law of levers, nor to think these cultures must have a direct educational
connection to Archimedes. Why? Because the law is true about the universe at
the scale at which living organisms, including humans with culture, must live.
This fact about the universe exerts pressure on any evolutionary process that
needs to effectively engage its environment.
Turning to the practice of ritual, the fact that both animals and humans use
stereotyped behaviors for coordinating sociality is uncontroversial. Mating
rituals between insects and greeting rituals between humans are clearly
connected somehow. But how, specifically? Because we both share a genetic
tendency for stereotype? Or because we both share a need for coordinating
Religions Emergent Characteristics 81

sociality, and exaggerated and predictable behaviors signal intentions, and

grease the wheels for getting things done cooperatively? If the second, culture
might have rediscovered what biology discovered first. Alternatively, what
once was a biological tendency might have gradually turned into something
that is now culturally preserved in humans for its usefulness, as our biological
dispositions have been masked by the growth of culture.3 In a thought-pro-
voking paper, Watanabe and Smuts (1999) have argued that certain unrelated
male baboons consciously utilize greeting rituals to signal the intent to cooper-
ate with each other in order to steal available mates from alpha males. They
suggest that ritual behavior is a useful mechanism that helps establish a clear
behavioral signal indicating otherwise unclear individual intentions. Ritual
elegantly establishes a context in which to build cooperative relations: its
formalism simplifies and disambiguates interactions; its invariance provides
a model for reliability and trust and ultimately truthfulness. They suggest
that stereotyped behavior creates a frame that allows individuals to explore
the possibilities of cooperation and the strength of mutual intentions. The
formalism of the behavior itself is useful to the process of communication,
as successfully completing a ritual demonstrates the willingness to for two
individuals to play by the rules with each other.
What all of this means is that ritual behavior might be present in humans
because it builds trust, communicates truthfulness, and sets apart conventions
established in ritual as binding, and precisely these features were needed at
some point in our cultural history. Culture could have re-discovered what biol-
ogy discovered first, and it is not necessary to assume that human ritual is the
result of selection for biological survival.
Watanabe and Smuts research was guided by an insight they gleaned from
Rappaport, one worth considering here. Rappaport claims that what originally
motivated the need for religious ritual was the possibility of the deceptive use
of language made possible by symbolic reference, as well as the potential for
chaos made possible when human linguistic freedom allows us to explore
competing, alternative visions of sociality. We needed mechanisms to ground
truth-telling and promising, as well as to provide singular visions of social
reality that all could buy into. The social need of linguistic humans was the
environment in which ritual provided robust solutions.
I suggest that symbolic culture is free enough with respect to our biological
history to be responsible for the robust presence of myth and ritual in religion,
as well as for the striking variety and unexpected richness found in religion.

3 See Wiles et al. (2005) and Goodenough and Deacon (2003) for an account of the way mask-
ing has given humans increasing control over our biologically-given behavior.
82 chapter 4

Sosis and Alcorta (2003) suggest something similar. They argue that empirical
investigation of different views of ritual in human culture has discovered some
interesting facts that undercut overly biologized approaches to religious prac-
tice, suggesting the need for accounts that take culture seriously. They have
demonstrated that ritual appears to positively impact the longevity of religious
communes, but does not positively impact the longevity of secular communes.
On the face of it, there is no obvious explanation to account for this discrep-
ancy; the authors of the study turned to Rappaports theory to explain it. As a
result of the empirical data, they conclude that the longevity and robustness of
a religious community is not due to ritual alone, but ritual in its relationship to
ideas about the divine, which facilitates an adaptive center for religious com-
munity organization. Consciously-entertained ritual involving the divine dis-
tinguishes religious ritual from animal and secular ritual, and lays at the heart
of [religions] efficacy in promoting and maintaining long-term group coopera-
tion and commitment (Sosis and Alcorta 2003, 268).
If I am correct and religion is primarily a cultural phenomenon, an account
of the cybernetic circuit of religious dynamics should focus on the dynamics
of ritual and myth in its larger cultural environment. Feedback from culture,
not biology, is where the cybernetic circuit finds its completion. Things like secu-
larism, other religions, political identities, aesthetic and moral sub-communities,
economic identities, utopian speculation, and scientific narratives are the envi-
ronment of a religious community, which is, after all, first and foremost a
linguistic entity that lives in the virtual reality of other shared linguistic enti-
ties. Only secondarily do ritual and myth have physical and objective social
attributes, due to their impact on human minds. Like a corporation, a religious
community is not purely a physical entity, nor purely an imagined entity.

The Emergent Dynamics of Human Culture

I stated that my first goal in this chapter is to show how human sociality is
emergent, in terms taken from our primer on emergence and semiotics. To do
this, I said I would first need to show the importance of human culture to
human sociality, and then analyze how human culture can demonstrate emer-
gent effects. I have done the first of these; now it is time to discuss how human
culture demonstrates emergent dynamics.
At some time in the past 4 million years, one genus of great ape the lineage
homo developed the potential for distributed, symbolic language. The impli-
cations of this were nothing short of revolutionary, perhaps as significant as
the emergence of life from non-life (or more modestly, as significant as the
Religions Emergent Characteristics 83

emergence of sexual reproduction) (Tomasello 1999; Deacon 1997; Dawkins

2006/1976). As a result, human beings everywhere now organize and coordi-
nate their sociality through their shared cultures. The presence of hominid
language was almost certainly having an effect on sociality even prior to the
full development of language about sociality. At first, this influence was weak,
probably overshadowed by the sociality given by our biological endowment,
but as Goodenough and Deacon (2003) have pointed out, the potential for
organizing sociality through language may have masked or weakened the
force of our evolved social tendencies, allowing humans to construct the socio-
cultural niches in which we currently live. If their account is correct, growing
numbers of individuals began to relate to each other through symbolic maps
of experience, which masked other ways of relating, and put genetic pressure
on individuals to have a certain psychological nature: a preference for relating
to each other via symbolic maps. We off-loaded sociality from genes to sym-
bolic culture, creating our current hybrid brain-culture (Donald 2001). This
hybrid nature of our sociality shows itself in the two different sources of social
processing that social neuroscientists note. These researchers, who study the
brain systems and functions undergirding sociality in humans, note that there
are fast, inflexible, automatic, implicit social cognitions, and slow, flexible,
explicit, and mentally costly social cognitions (Frith and Frith 2008). The fast,
inflexible, and automatic social cognitions are those that come from our bio-
logical endowment; the slow, flexible, and explicit social cognitions are those
that come from our symbolic, cultural heritage. That these two forms of social-
ity are distinct can be seen when they are placed in forced opposition to each
other in laboratory experiments.
We can describe the emergent social effects of people sharing a symbolic
language, just as we can describe the dynamics of any aggregate in nature
when relational interaction produces a system of interacting parts. What do
these emergent effects of language-sharing on sociality look like?

Homeodynamic Social Effects of Sharing a Language

Homeodynamics, you may recall, is an emergent state where aggregates fall
towards regularities by virtue of statistical canceling effects that reduce differ-
ence, leading to systemic relational properties. Homeodynamic social effects
of sharing a symbolic language are primarily seen in the averaging out effect
of language on relations between individuals. How does sharing a communi-
cable language allow this? First, it extends the conditions for sociality by mak-
ing it possible to share experiences, plans, and ideas with others with whom we
would not normally share such experiences. Sociality can extend beyond the
biological family or kin group. This can influence actual, physical arrangements
84 chapter 4

of people, as groups of unrelated persons grow in size, their coordination com-

ing from their ability to enter into linguistic relations with each other. Second,
it extends the quality of sociality, by creating a pool of shared experiences,
plans, and ideas that no single individual actually experienced or thought of
him or herself. As each language-user participates in refining the same mental
map, it creates homogenized interpretations of human experience, making
possible a pre-eminent, public, shared perspective on reality which strongly
influences individual mental life. Durkheim (1973/1914), when considering the
status of the mental life of humans when they share a cultural map of reality,
writes, Because collective, these states of consciousness are impersonal, and
turn us toward ends that we have in common with others, and by which we
communicate with others. The shared public model of reality suppresses
idiosyncratic private interpretations of experience that are not common or
compelling enough to be represented publicly, and a sense of a public, objective
world4 grows.

Morphodynamic Social Effects of Sharing a Language

Recall that morphodynamics describe the organization that can arise at a
higher level because it exemplifies the most efficient way to dissipate lower
level constraints, when repeated interactions at the lower level produce feed-
back that piles up those constraints (a compound interest effect). There are
different ways to consider the morphodynamic social effects of sharing a
language, depending on whether we focus on its effects on the physical aggre-
gation of biological individuals, or we focus on its effects within the mental
world of representations of individuals and their aggregates. We will consider
both, because it is the interrelation of these two morphodynamic effects that
will become significant in teleodynamic social effects of sharing a language.
First, let us consider the morphodynamic social effects of language-use on
the physical aggregations of biological individuals, including how it affects the
evolution of the brain. To the degree that language supports successful large-
scale projects, it gives language-users an advantage in reproduction. Provided
that reproductive free-riders are punished through policing, the use of lan-
guage to coordinate large-scale tasks will be adaptive.5 Deacon (1997) has noted
that humans are the only pair-bonded primate having significant paternal
investment that live in large multi-male groups. He suggests this is related to
the fact that through language, unrelated human males can bond together
to undertake corporate endeavors, while simultaneously policing mating

4 Even the objective world of common inner experience.

5 This scenario is analyzed in Fitch (2010).
Religions Emergent Characteristics 85

contingencies. Language, as well as our brain-based expertise in utilizing it,

will develop, differentiate, and support ever larger and more complex social
arrangements and endeavors. Social organization, social psychology, and lin-
guistic culture will enter into a feedback relationship with each other, causing
human culture to grow in importance, our evolved social psychology to
change as a result, and social forms to develop in new and unexpected direc-
tions. This is an example of human niche construction, the result being our
characteristic enmeshment in linguistically-enabled social structures
(Goodenough and Deacon 2003).
Bickerton (2009) similarly argues that two species without superficial
resemblance to each other ants and early hominids are actually quite simi-
lar in the way they use inter-individual communication to facilitate large-scale
sociality. Both species, Bickerton argues, once inhabited a niche of scavenging
large animals, requiring complex social recruitment, putting selection pressure
on systems of communication. For both species, the advantages of communi-
cation fed-back to influence their evolved social behavior and physiology.
This means, surprisingly, that human existence resembles ant existence more
than it resembles great ape existence. Both species have ballooned in num-
bers; both domesticate animals and plants; both build cities. And the cities of
both species, by mere fact of their size, self-organize into necessary and robust
types of behaviors, including a full-time division of labor, a soldier caste, and
a caste dedicated to city self-maintenance (Campbell 1965; Johnson 2001;
Rappaport 1999).
In both cases, niche construction, driven by advanced communication, has
determined the kind of niche the two species occupy, social behavioral ten-
dencies, and the kind of society that evolved as a result. Bickerton argues that
the social control under which we currently labor would have been intolerable
to our hunter-gatherer ancestors; for the past 10,000 years, ever since cities and
government, we have been selecting against the most independent, individual-
istic members of our species. Passivity, compliance, loyalty, and obedience
have prospered and been reinforced.
Now that we have focused on the morphodynamic effects of language use
on our biological constitution and physical aggregation, we can focus on the
morphodynamic effects of language use on mental representations of human
sociality. In this case, we are focusing on the feedback effects of language on
ideas about sociality, not on physical social arrangements and on our evolved
brains. From this perspective, we can see morphodynamic effects in the inter-
twined narratives that grow out of sharing a language and culture with others,
as individual self-narratives increasingly embed patterns of social relations.
As a bit of background to this claim, Kerby (1991) has explained how our
86 chapter 4

individual sense of self (our self as it exists in the virtual world of linguistic
representation) grows as a result of representing ourselves to ourselves linguis-
tically. We build a selective narrative unity about ourselves through our prac-
tice of telling a story of our self, our life, and our interests and desires, which
we can then use to guide decisions about our future. Our future-self is biased
by our representations of our past-self, constraining possible future trajecto-
ries of our lives to create coherence.
However, we exist in relation with others who are similarly representing
themselves to themselves. Thus, our self-narratives cant help but reflect our
relations to others; individual self-narratives begin to be coordinated. Prior
to even conceptualizing we, our many individual Is become entangled, and
our sense of self necessarily reflects the influence of other senses of self. Specific
roles and relations can become embedded in our self-narratives, mutually defin-
ing corresponding relations between individuals. My sense of self as a son is
intimately tied to a particular womans sense of self as mother, and a class of
peoples sense of self as slave is tied to another classs sense of self as master.
Our narratives reflect systematic features of all the shared narratives that
interact with each other, growing in mutual coordination and canceling out
discordant aspects.
In summary, then, there are at least two kinds of morphodynamic, feedback
effects of having a language on sociality; one is the effect on physical aggrega-
tion, impacting actual social arrangements and our social psychology; the
other is the feedback effect of having a language on the growing coordination
of our self-narratives, as they reflect social interdependence.

Teleodynamic Social Effects of Sharing a Language

We have covered forms of emergent sociality that do not include memory in
the two previous examples homeodynamic and morphodynamic sociality.
Now we turn to teleodynamics, where memory can play a role. Deacon has
argued that teleodynamics emerge when two or more morphodynamic pro-
cesses becoming intertwined, each creating the conditions insuring the others
continued existence. Further, when some aspect of such a system becomes
a bottleneck of constraint, it plays the role of a form of memory, biasing
the system in a certain direction, reinforcing the mutual relations between
morphodynamic processes, and insuring their replication. Once this memory
feature is established, changes in the memory component can profoundly
impact the behaviors the system demonstrates, becoming the source of varia-
tion of alternative arrangements of behaviors.
I suggest that these features of teleodynamics can be seen in human social-
ity when the two morphodynamic social processes I just outlined get entangled
Religions Emergent Characteristics 87

with each other, each supporting the others continued existence. When the
feedback effects of language use on physical aggregation (cities, division of labor,
castes, family arrangements, etc.), and the feedback effects of language use
on representations of sociality (roles, social scripts, thematized self-narratives
that include social relations like son and mother) become entwined, they
become mutually self-supporting. Our sense of self and our actual, physical
social arrangements act as a redundant repository of the initial conditions
that ground this physical/mental hybrid sociality. Representation of self and
the reality of physical relations between people become interdependent.
To summarize this teleodynamic social effect, language use creates physical
arrangements of people that go beyond our biological endowment; language
use creates individual self-narratives that embed distributed social relations
that grow in mutual coordination; these many self-narratives and the physical
organization of the species become co-facilitative of each other.
The further point I am now suggesting is that in this setting, a memory
component can develop that acts as a bottleneck of constraint for this inter-
related dynamic. I suggest this memory component is the growth of explicit
group narratives and representations of sociality itself. Language use not only
grounds self-narratives, but also shared narratives about the social group.
These we narratives and social representations act as explicit memory that
ground our institutions, corporate memory, and national ethos (Searle 1995).
What this means is, individual self-narratives share space in our heads with a
larger, more comprehensive group narrative or social ideal. The biological
aggregation of individuals begins to be represented as a single entity, and the
social narrative that develops defines who we as individuals are, as much as
our individual narratives.6 For example, during the 1960s in America, the
Vietnam War affected the public political narrative concerning what it means
to be American, as well as the private narrative of many individuals who pro-
tested against that war and the countrys involvement. These two became
tangled in ways that impacted both self-narratives and public policy, as well as
the way social life in America was actually expressed. Youth culture became
a significant fact, overshadowing the impact of the family for many people,
and self-definitions such as hippie and social narratives such as the lessons
of Vietnam played a significant role in American identity and political deci-
sions for decades. This even impacted the way Americans handled the

6 As Manchester and Reid (2012) write of Winston Churchill, In those such as Churchill, his-
tory, by way of imagination and discipline, becomes part of personal memory, no less so than
childhood recollections of the first swim in the ocean or the first day of school. Both Royce
(1968) and Durkheim (1995) articulated this in one way or another, as well.
88 chapter 4

treatment of soldiers returning from the 1991 Gulf War, with the goal of heal-
ing the wounds of Vietnam.
Characterizing these very different social dynamics using emergence cate-
gories homeodynamic averaging out effects, morphodynamic feedback effects,
and the more complicated, mutually constraining teleodynamic effects that
can take advantage of a memory component shows that human sociality can
be brought under the general categories of emergence theory in suggestive and
ultimately fruitful ways. Chase (2006) and Lior (2014) have made similar, strong
arguments about the importance of using emergence categories to understand
human sociality, as have the realist social theorists such as Archer (1995) and
Elder-Vass (2007) (although I believe realist accounts would be strengthened
if these theorists had a conception of how the memory component of we nar-
ratives functions in social dynamics).
Having broached the topic of the memory component of human sociality,
and having given an example of we narratives that define corporate identity
and national ethos, I want to explain more carefully the different ways that
linguistic representations can act as memory in a social system, constraining
and biasing the way individual self-narratives are tied to each other, and affect-
ing the actual physical relations between individuals. Recall that in Ch. 1, I
argued that there are three different classes of human sociality, corresponding
to the three ways memory can function to produce human sociality. These
three classes are: (1) the fundamental, ineliminable equality of all language
users as participants in a community of interpretation, which necessarily
flows out of the interchangeability of hearer and speaker, interpreter and pro-
ducer of linguistic utterances. (2) A culturally passed-on form of sociality that
results from the linguistic ability to represent sociality itself. (3) Sociality that is
organized with respect to the divine, as groups affirm and embody divine
Beings and Ways. These three classes of sociality are possible because of the
three different ways a memory component can represent sociality. The first
class represents the way language use represents our implicit participation in
a community of interpretation, utilizing a linguistic term that iconically repre-
sents such sociality. The second class represents socially-constructed and cul-
turally-articulated forms of sociality, indexed to the pragmatic interests of
individuals in groups. The third class represents a theologically-articulated,
encoded symbolic map of society, which uses ideas about the divine to coor-
dinate individuals with each other indirectly.

Memory Involving Iconic Reference Produces Communitas

Josiah Royce (1968/1913) argues that when symbolic language is shared among
many individuals, each participant represents an interpreter, whether or not
Religions Emergent Characteristics 89

this is explicitly recognized. Through language a community of interpreta-

tion is created, not a mere aggregate of biological individuals. In a community
of interpretation, the other with whom one shares linguistic communication
is implicitly posited as an equal to oneself equal in the capacity to participate
in the linguistic community.
There exists a shared linguistic term that represents the individual as he/she
participates in the community of interpretation. The term acts as a form of
memory, iconically referencing this type of human sociality. The term I am
referring to is I (and similar terms in other languages). The use of the term I
is iconic of every other use of the term, across many individuals. The I iconi-
cally represents the interchangeability and equality of each interpreter in the
community of interpretation; it does not represent any specific or determinate
person, but merely the general category of persons who participate in linguis-
tic discourse. The I designates participation among equals; it represents an
undistinguished class. It represents those who have entered into a shared lin-
guistic map within the linguistic map. And its shared use grounds a fundamen-
tal sense of what is meant by humanity.
Turners (1969) conception of communitas profoundly recognizes both the
interchangeable, iconic characteristics of the self as it is represented linguisti-
cally, and the relevant connection between that self and other forms of sociality.
I dont think his descriptions of communitas can be improved upon as a
description of the interchangeability of those within a community of interpre-
tation, captured in a memory component utilizing the iconic form of refer-
ence. Turner writes that communitas is a generalized social bond, blending
lowliness and sacredness, homogeneity and comradeship. It is a precondition
for the cultural development of human sociality. It is the unstructured and
undifferentiated community or communion of equal individuals. Communitas
has an aspect of potentiality, and unprecedented potency. His character-
ization of communitas and its role in sociality relies on the metaphor of the
emptiness at the center of a wheel, which is indispensable for its function-
ing. It has an existential quality that involves the whole man in relation to
others. This existential quality is different from the structures of sociality that
build upon it, which have a cognitive quality. Turner is inclined to think that
communitas is not solely the product of biologically inherited drives released
from cultural constraints. Rather it is the product of peculiarly human facul-
ties. It is the product of men in their wholeness wholly attending. The equal-
ity of communitas is most certainly not a fact of biological organisms of the
homo lineage, whose skills and abilities vary wildly. It is a posited fact, an entail-
ment of sharing a symbolic language, as interpreters must be posited as equals
in the process of sharing interpretations with one another.
90 chapter 4

The I representing the interpreter that exists in every act of interpretation,

lives in the virtual realm of shared language and cultural representations, and
as such is one step removed from the biological individual and physical aggre-
gation. As Fichte (1982/1797) noted two centuries ago, the I is not a fact, but an
act. Representing ones capacities for interpretation by using the word I estab-
lishes oneself in the community of interpretation, as an equal with everyone
else who is able to join the club. The I is used iconically as social memory to
create an awareness of the fundamental equality of all language-users, of
humans in their shared humanity.

Memory Involving Indexical Reference Produces the Linguistic

Construction of Society
If the I iconically represents ones membership in the community of interpre-
tation, creating our sense of humanity, another use of language references
specific groups, specific kinds of groups, and specific visions for how sociality
should be constructed. In these examples, social memory is indexed. Turner is
also useful in explicating this kind of human sociality, as he notes there are
two models of human interrelatedness that necessarily coexist with each
other. One is what we just analyzed communitas. While the communion of
equal individuals is memorialized in such political ideas as All men are cre-
ated equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,
the second type of sociality is described by Turner as a structured, differ-
entiated, and often hierarchical system. This model is the result of linguisti-
cally-constructed politico-legal-economic systems of cooperation and social
hierarchy, according to principles that may well take individual differences
into account. If the Declaration of Independence trumpets human equality,
the Constitution of the United States focuses on the distinction between, and
proper hierarchical organization of, the natural orders of human beings, par-
ticularly the differences between the one, few, and many.7
How does the human cultural construction of sociality begin and develop?
As noted in the previous section, it develops when ideas of we begin to be
countenanced and explicitly designated linguistically. This is the linguistic
companion to what philosopher John Searle (1995) calls collective intention-
ality or we intentionality. Consider what I noted in the previous section:
when large numbers of unrelated individuals are joined by a common lan-
guage, the result is an unplanned, yet robustly predictable, organizational
structure. These new and unplanned patterns of human organization may find

7 See the debate of the representatives to the Federal Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia
on June 7, 1787 (Farrand 1911).
Religions Emergent Characteristics 91

linguistic representation; terms may be invented to bring the group to mind

and enable the identification of its unique characteristics. These characteriza-
tions may then become starting points for the variation and selection of social
ideas. For example, self-organizing city dynamics, when conceptualized, can
become sources for theorizing about the division of labor and political organi-
zation. And key ideas applied to abstract entities like the United States, such
as all men are created equal, can become motivations for considering the
morality of slavery or of womens suffrage. Thus, a feedback effect of sharing
language large groups of individuals living in unplanned, emergent forms of
social organization can enter into our cognitive maps as a form of memory,
and can then become the source of variation and selection of conceptualized
social forms.
I have characterized the capacity of symbolic language to allow us to con-
struct society as indexical memory. Why would I characterize this emergent
effect of cultural memory as indexical? I do this because explicit, shared terms
directly link individual narratives to others. Through such conceptualizations,
individuals are able to directly place themselves and others within a rule-
based, constructed social system that they each, more-or-less, understand and
Consider a hungry man who arrives at a restaurant at 10pm, only to be told
that the restaurant is closed. Because the patron exists to himself not just as a
biological individual in need of food, but also as a part of a social narrative, as
a self in an explicit society, he recognizes the authority of the restaurateur to
close her restaurant when she wishes. Though the closing of the restaurant
may not be convenient to him, or even in his best interests, because of the
shared symbolic order mediating between the patron and the restaurateur, no
fight breaks out, no food is demanded, no threats made. The explicit system of
rules that both patron and restaurateur abide by directly mediates between
the hungry man as self, and the expectations put on relational interactions
with others in society. The uncomfortable fact that some people got to eat
while the hungry person did not is brought under rules that explicitly deter-
mine this as a fair outcome, one that takes precedence over the needs of the
hungry person. The hungry person himself, though perhaps individually hurt
by the decision at that moment, recognizes that his life in many other moments
is better off because of such mediating rules that connect individuals to others.
The system connecting self to society pragmatically makes sense to him as a
social construct.
Explicit social rules directly index social behaviors for individuals. Laws,
rules, constitutions, explicitly-given rights, and other tokens that represent
we intentionality act as memory, implicating individual narratives as well.
92 chapter 4

By abiding by the terms of this social memory, many individuals come into
coordination with each other as a direct result of choosing to submit to the
terms of the narrative. Social narratives may index basic biological needs such
as those implicated in economic arrangements, but also may index things such
as fairness, equality, happiness, and even aesthetic taste.
Let me recapitulate what I have said so far about how linguistically-repre-
sented memory can differently function to produce different classes of human
sociality. A social memory component utilizing iconic reference the narrative
I that grounds self-narratives references the equal participation of all lan-
guage-users in the community of interpretation. It references the fundamental
equality of all humans to each other. A social memory component utilizing
indexical reference refers to particular groups in their characteristic organiza-
tional patterns. Importantly, these represented patterns can become starting
points for the variation and selection of social ideas, exploring different ways
and reasons for forming into groups. Explicit representations of the United
States, Led Zeppelin fans, representational democracy, economic justice,
open marriage, and the countless other ways we explicitly represent social
forms, become ideas that govern social practices. These ideas can become
bottlenecks of constraint linking individuals to each other mentally, re-
producing particular social groups and their characteristic dynamics.8

Memory Involving Symbolic Reference Produces an Encoded

Spiritual Map of Social Relations
Many who study religion have made the claim that divine beliefs function
within religious communities as encoded sociality; I am contextualizing this
claim within emergence theory, noting its role as symbolic memory. For exam-
ple, Boddy (1994) writes that religious statements are one step removed from
normal statements about societies; they are coded moral and political acts...
derived from thinking about ones relationships to others by thinking through
the Other. Geerts (1990) approves of Turners (1974) quote that divine concepts
dont directly refer to the community; they provide a set of structures of

8 While I developed many of these ideas prior to Deacons publication of Incomplete Nature, in
that work Deacon offers language that has clarified my thinking, and confirms the basic
direction I have taken. He notes that with respect to the teleodynamics of sociality, the criti-
cal issue is the capacity for semiotic processes to control behavior and shape the worldview
of whole cultures. He further suggests that teleodynamic processes may be expressed as
common cultural narratives for explaining events, habits of communication developed
between different groups or classes of individuals, conventionalized patterns of exchange,
etc. (2012, 368).
Religions Emergent Characteristics 93

thought and feeling about the relationship between the living and the super-
natural realm, which then influences the community. Gardner (1983) notes
that ritual participation is not intended to produce conventional states of affairs
with respect to sociality directly, but rather, to influence supernatural beings.
As noted in Ch. 2, two theorists have explicitly noted that the key character-
istic setting apart religious sociality from other forms of sociality is the way
divine beliefs guide religious experience, which in turn connects the individual
to the community. Wikstrom (1990) suggests that in religious communities,
four things are connected: individual psychological motives, religious myths
that somehow touch these psychological needs, socio-cultural realities, and a
kind of play of religious imagination. He suggests the play of religious imagi-
nation involves the mediation of a special reality-map consisting of an existen-
tially-relevant frame of interpretation pointing to a cosmic Thou. And Csordas
(2001) proposes that something like a transducer connects the ideal world of
the sacred and numinous with the material world of existence. He suggests
that this transducer is a particular kind of imaginative, indeterminate, sponta-
neous, and numinous bodily/sensory engagement with the world seen as a
revealed manifestation of the divine when appropriate theological ideas give
this engagement legitimacy. Examples include Catholic Charismatic words of
knowledge and Native American Church physical signs.
What this suggests is that the divine as experienced systematically links
individuals and group, the experience translating the link between ideas about
the divine to social organization. Beliefs about the divine act as social memory,
but not directly; they are not about sociality at all. What makes them relevant
to sociality is the way experience of the divine becomes relevant to social orga-
nization. I will specifically examine religious teleodynamics in greater detail in
the next section.

Teleodynamic Religion and the Role of Symbolic Reference

My other goal for this chapter, besides showing how human sociality is emer-
gent, is to specifically show how religion is a teleodynamic emergent system
involving symbolic reference. Over the next two sections, I will argue that reli-
gion utilizes what Rocha and Hordijk defined as symbols (see Ch. 3), and con-
forms to the central themes of semantic closure and strange loops.
To begin, I want to acknowledge the formal similarity of Rappaports defini-
tion of ritual, the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal
acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers, with one of
Deacons definitions of teleodynamics, via memory, constraints derived from
94 chapter 4

specific, past, higher-order states...get repeatedly re-entered into the lower-

order dynamics leading to future states (2003b). If participants in ritual do not
encode their own actions, as Rappaport states, they necessarily must be the
result of a kind of memory. Both Deacon and Rappaport conceive their object
of study to involve an organizational structure repeatedly re-creating itself as a
result of a kind of memory imposing itself on the present. They both emphasize
the circular causal structure of teleodynamics and ritually-organized religious
communities, respectively, and both consider their subjects as organization-
ally related to living things.9
These general comparisons of teleodynamics and ritual religion dont dis-
tinguish between the type of memory involved, whether it uses indexical and
symbolic reference. Rocha and Hordijk, working within Pattees account of
semantic closure, proposed three rules for identifying when symbolic refer-
ence is being used as system memory. I want to look at these rules, comparing
them to my description of religious communities.
Rocha and Hordijk note that symbols are dynamically incoherent with
respect to the rest of the systems dynamics. They do not act directly based on
their material/dynamic qualities, but indirectly, based on their relational and
informational properties. They must be decoded to affect the system in which
they are a part, so they represent a formal rather than an efficient cause. Symbols,
since not efficacious directly, have to be separated from direct material and
energetic transaction, stored away and accessed by structures able to inter-
pret them. The syntactic structure of information in symbols can be accessed
and utilized without reference to its content.
Besides being dynamically incoherent, symbols are identifiable because a
construction code is responsible for translating their informational content
into dynamic realities. Rocha and Hordijk note that semantic information is
decoded from syntactic structures to construct dynamic configurations in a
dynamical system-environment coupling. The construction code is an exam-
ple of an interpretant-vehicle as outlined in Ch. 3, and functions in the same
way as placing a linear scale of numbers next to a tube of mercury of changing
height does, allowing one to be taken as the other. The construction code
designates the rules used to translate dynamically incoherent memory into
another domain, producing potent outcomes when translated.
Together, what the first two criteria imply is that if there exists something
that could be described as a symbolic teleodynamic social group, whatever
represents the conceptual heart of such a community would not have direct
effects on sociality; it would not be seen to be directly efficacious in the social

9 Rappaport (1999, 41112, 4089); Deacon (2003b, 284; 2006, 1378).

Religions Emergent Characteristics 95

world by being about sociality. It would lack a direct message linking the indi-
vidual to the social; it would be a formal or structuring cause of sociality,
rather than an efficient cause of sociality.10 Since the concepts linking
individual narratives together to create sociality would not be directly about
sociality, for them to be efficacious in that domain, they would have to be
set apart and accessed by many people for reasons other than their effect
on sociality. In a sense, they would have to be framed and set apart from
normal social discourse. Further, the impact such set-apart ideas would have
on the psychology of individuals and the organization of societies would
have to be the result of a code. Something functioning as a consistent decoding
device, an interpretant-vehicle, would translate the conceptual center of such
a community as it is taken up by individuals into entailments for sociality.
To understand how religion realizes these dynamics, let us consider first
how the ideas governing a religious community can be seen to be dynamically
incoherent. The claim I am making is that there is a distinction to be made
between the effects of divine ideas as they produce decentering experiences in
ritual participants, and the effects of divine ideas as they are articulated, stud-
ied, defended, and passed on according to their impact on normal, mundane
consciousness (their unencoded form). Myths can have inert and potent
effects on consciousness. Stories of gods acting among human beings in
characteristic and defining ways are just that stories to anyone who is
contemplating the content of religion in a normal frame of mind. Myths are
inert with respect to social organization when viewed from the perspective
of normal experience. However, when they are embraced as authoritative and
really real, their effect on experience allows them to become potent and
transformative. This distinction differentiates the intellectual activities of
apologetics, theology, and religious studies from devotional participation in
religious community life.
To explain this distinction, Rappaports idea of metaperformativity is criti-
cal. Recall metaperformativity is a description of the way ritual makes myth
individually and socially authoritative. When myths are embraced as authori-
tative and really real through the metaperformative authority of the ritual
structure, they have potent and transformative social and psychological effects,
as normal modes of interpreting them are suppressed.
Next, let us consider how religious symbols are set apart from the mundane.
How does this occur with respect to myth? Most basically, this is accomplished
through the theatrical and repetitive elements of ritual, which make clear that

10 If we can metaphorically consider language, used normally, articulating directly the con-
nection of selves to society, as demonstrating efficient causality.
96 chapter 4

certain components informing religious life are distinguishable from others,

and should be understood differently. That the Roman Mass offers a non-filling
meal of bread and wine every week, and has done so for 2,000 years, sets apart
that meal as distinct from other meals, and other mundane affairs of life.
Religious symbols may also be set apart by rules allowing only certain people
to engage the material culture of the sacred, or that make criticism of them
a punishable offense, or by the use of ostentatious wealth, human effort, or
suffering to display the value of mythological elements far beyond their mun-
dane, practical, value.
These facts suggest that mythological elements, by being set apart and
protected, as well as by not directly impacting psychological or social relations
in their inert forms, represent dynamically incoherent memory the symbol-
tokens can be manipulated without reference to their function as information
for the ritual community, and are implemented in non-reactive structures to
normal conscious experience.
What is the construction code (the second of Rocha & Hordijks criteria)
that decodes myth and constructs from it a dynamic religious community
coupled with a larger cultural environment? What translates dynamically
incoherent mythological themes into actual differences in the psychological
and social worlds of communities of interpreters? Taylor (1990) has made a
distinction that is helpful here. In analyzing the religious dimensions of
Confucianism,11 he claims that the idea of transformation is what allows us to
distinguish between a philosophical absolute and a religious absolute. A philo-
sophical absolute changes how we think; religious absolutes change how we
are. Taylor argues that for an absolute to function as a religious absolute, it
must involve personal transformation. He writes, Religion provides not only
for a relationship with what is defined as the absolute, but provides as well a
way for the individual to move toward that which is identified as the absolute
(1990, 3, italics mine). Ultimate transformation is the quintessential character-
istic in the identification of a religious tradition.
If Taylor is correct, and I think that he is, then in terms of the ideas we devel-
oped in Ch. 2, the construction code is the decentering process, the play of
religious imagination that is biased by ideas of the divine. Biased decentering
acts as the transducer connecting people to each other, as they find their
place within the theological world defined by mythological content. Myths,
when taken as authoritative, bias the decentering process and thus bias the
experiences of many people, impacting group coordination as a result. Through
decentering, the mythical becomes the mystical, and the mystical grounds a

11 See Appendix, below, for a full account of the religious dimensions of Confucianism.
Religions Emergent Characteristics 97

new kind of sociality. This is seen in the hot voodoo svis of Lowenthal,
Durkheims collective effervescence, and even in Rappaports account of the
ongoing, low-key, relatively private experience of daily prayer in Orthodox
Judaism.12 Decentering affects the way religious practitioners view and partici-
pate in the community that shares the practice.
How is decentering accomplished? The important claim I am making here
is that the very same techniques used to prepare individuals to take up their
myths as authoritative and potent, which Rappaport called metaperformativ-
ity, is precisely what McNamara thinks causes religious decentering. As I
explained in Ch. 2, for one participating in religious ritual, there are implicit
facts about the dynamics of participation that are important to note. First, one
is implicitly acknowledging that the divine exists, and exists in certain ways,
with certain specific characteristics; second, one is implicitly acknowledging
the authority of the divine; and third, one is embodying or channeling the
divine through ritual practice; one is submitting ones ego to an extraordinary
causal influence. Performance of religious ritual implies a speaker that is
greater than the individual, to whom the individual is submitting oneself.
These dynamics are precisely what McNamara thinks establish religious
decentering. A partial list of what McNamara considers triggers for decenter-
ing includes:

Intentional religious practices such as those that obtain in initiation rites,

prayer, meditation, reading scripture, listening to sacred music, etc. These
may prime the religion circuit of the brain to make decentering more
likely. This is possible because beliefs, emotions, cognitions and cognitive
practices influence neurochemical activity, which is crucial to changing
brain states.
Religious narratives, which are taken as truly representing the unseen
realm, often involve divinely-ordained setbacks and defeats, which can
reduce agency and trigger decentering in those who take such narratives
Religious language, which has peculiar characteristics; these shift the
source and control of speech away from the individual and to the puta-
tive superior agent. In ritual acts involving religious language, the indi-
vidual sets aside his/her own identity to participate in the identity of the

12 Frequent performance of brief rituals, like the round of daily prayers of Orthodox Jews
and their continued observance of mitzvoth (commandments) in the details of daily life
may penetrate to the cognitive and affective bases of that behavior, and thus strengthen
the ground upon which the order realized stands (Rappaport 1999, 209).
98 chapter 4

speaker whose voice is characterized through the language. Thus, reli-

gious language may facilitate the onset of decentering, even as it marks
metaperformativity. Self-consciousness is reduced so the spirit can speak,
and the fusion of the old identity with the new is facilitated.
Masks and religious dramas appear to facilitate decentering. Masks
and participation in religious dramas make it easier to access alternative
identities. Adopting the mask of a god means suppressing ones own iden-
tity and acquiring a supernatural identity. Strong forms of this decenter-
ing such as those that obtain in religious possession, is a broad cultural
phenomena; 74% of all cultures evidence possession beliefs. Possession,
as with all decentering, should be considered a by-product of the way the
brain constructs identity.
McNamara wonders whether sacrificial blood, the presence of which is
accompanied by some discomfort, triggers decentering. I would suggest
it does, as it involves the intentional killing of an animal, which is inher-
ently uncomfortable and intense, as well as the sacrifice of wealth, for the
sake of invisible Beings and Ways. Any religious act that, in Rappaports
words, is intense, becomes an index of how real the posited entity is
believed to be that asks or demands individuals give up comfort or value
on their behalf. Intense symbolic acts invite sobriety and seriousness,
suggesting unseen usps are so important that they have earned the right
to such behaviors from humans. This can trigger decentering. A similar
result can be seen in the effects martyrdom has on others, which point to
the importance of the unseen reality in the name of which the martyr-
dom was performed.
I would add that attitudes and behaviors expressing worship trigger
decentering, as the content focuses attention on the postulated non-
immanent Being or Way on whose behalf the community has gathered.
Wildman (2011, 232) argues that religious musical worship is really a way
to manipulate psycho-social triggers found in corporate rhythmic move-
ment, but I would suggest that the opposite is more likely the case: religious
communities may use all sorts of psycho-social tricks to get people into
the situations (like musical worship of divine Beings and Ways) that
cause decentering and the experience of the higher selves latent in reli-
gious community participation.

As I stated in Ch. 2, the authoritative interpretation of individual religious

decentering occurs according to how such experiences fit into the theological
world designated by myth. Decentering, fueled by the metaperformativity
of ritual and myth, link together an individuals narrative of (a) themselves,
Religions Emergent Characteristics 99

(b) the community of interpretation who share myth and ritual, and (c) the
communitys view of the cosmos. A world order is enacted by metaperforma-
tive decentering (Rappaport 1999), and individual experience is translated into
group dynamics by this world order. This is Rocha & Hordijks construction
code, turning dynamically incoherent religions myths into experiences of
The third of Rocha & Hordijks criterion is self-organization and selection,
and describes how the material structures constructed by symbolic represen-
tation exist under the constraints of self-organization and self-reproduction,
and are pragmatically selected in an evolutionary process. As Pattee notes, a
dynamic system that is conservative and repetitious must also be flexible and
interactive. This criterion identifies the critical role that self-reproduction
plays, as well as how feedback from the environment culls memory variants
and their corresponding dynamic outcomes. It is through reproduction with
variation and selection that symbols representing initial conditions for organism
development can, over time, track their environment intelligently, increasing
the fitness of the organism over the long term. The environment for a sym-
bolic teleodynamic social system would not be the physical environment,
but rather the larger cultural and symbolic domain composing the shared
public space of symbolic language. Competition would come from alternative
conceptualizations of sociality of various types. The proper functioning of its
social dynamics would not be for the benefit of the individual primarily, but for
the community as an organism.
Rappaport provides us a way to view the self-reproductive capacities of
religion that result from the synergistic relationships coordinating myth, indi-
vidual experience, and religious sociality in a mutually reinforcing set. As ritual
and myth are made individually meaningful through decentering, community
ritual dynamics are reinforced and a metaphysical order is established; as com-
munity ritual dynamics are reinforced and a metaphysical order is established,
individuals are re-invited to access transformative decentering experiences.
Individual psychological experiences, narratives, and an adaptive, long-lived
social order mutually reinforce each other, insuring the reproduction of the
entire teleodynamic.
Rappaport also makes several important contributions towards seeing reli-
gious communities as fitting this requirement. He explains how a religious
community is organized so as to be adaptive, as ritual hierarchically authorizes
more and less central content. His argument is that the hierarchy of sacredness
is also a hierarchy of stability, Ultimate Sacred Postulates being the most stable,
Dominant Symbols less so, rules even less so, etc. This allows a religious com-
munity to adapt to many different cultural environments. It also gives an order
100 chapter 4

to how change will be manifested in a religious community: it will start at

the periphery and gradually makes it way to the center, the depth of change
determined by what is necessary for the survival of the community. Selection
pressures, coming from changes in the larger cultural/political/social environ-
ment, will influence the experience of individuals participating in the religious
community, and will determine whether or not they continue to participate.
If myths still meaningfully invite alternative forms of experience by which
sociality is organized, the community will continue to be adaptive in its
cultural or sociological niche (cf. Rappaport 1999, 428, 42930).13
An important entailment of Rocha & Hordijks third criterion is that reli-
gious communities should be self-organizing bounded systems. Cho and Squier,
in a paper that analyzes just these characteristics of religious communities
from a systems perspective, write:

...a Christian or Buddhist is identified by her connectivity to other indi-

viduals of that class, through particular kinds of interactions, such as
sharing doctrines, ritual practices, and communal structures. Individuals
in themselves are not inherently Christians or Buddhists. Instead, a sys-
tem is constituted in the connectivity of its components. We can demarcate
Christians as a system based on a relatively high degree of connectivity
between individuals...
We can identify Buddhism as a system by demarcating it from its sur-
rounding Indian environment, such as the brahmanical tradition against
which Buddhists distinguished themselves, as well as other nonbrahmani-
cal movements with which Buddhism dialogued, borrowed, and competed.
This system identification might entail adopting the simplifying focus of
Buddhisms self-organization into the three primary components of the
Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and their interactions. (2013, 368, 367).

If, as they claim, theological and ritual components provide the connections
that identify Buddhist and Christian religious communities, a lineage of reli-
gious communities must have been reproducing identical or highly similar
myths and rituals over time. Instrumental to this process would have been
community discernment practices, invoked to maintain the identity of the com-
munity, and the proper interpretation of decentering experiences. Community

13 I have supplemented Rappaports account here with the idea that myth must continue to
meaningfully invite decentering. He focuses on myths meaninglessness, its mysterious-
ness. This change is in line with my critique of Rappaports misunderstanding of the
importance of divine ideas.
Religions Emergent Characteristics 101

disciplinary acts such as excommunication preserve the boundaries of the sys-

tem, even while they produce the impetus for new communities to split off
and pursue their own, unique trajectories.

Semantic Closure, Strange Loops, and the Creation of a Social Self

Semantic closure, as it has been articulated by Pattee and others, is the autono-
mous, circular causal closure of the dynamics of the material aspects of a
system and the constraints provided by the symbolic aspects of a system.
According to this theory, constraints on the dynamics of a reproducing system
are introduced symbolically from within the system itself, and passed on to
future iterations of the system, by the system itself. This, according to these
theorists, is critical to defining what is meant by an agent or a self.
I think we can naturally interpret as an example of semantic closure how the
social outcomes of religious communities are tied to the decentering psychological
experiences of individuals participating in ritual and myth. These social outcomes
create the conditions that insure the reproduction of the myths and rituals, which
re-invites decentering psychological experiences. The metaperformativity of
ritual and myth link together both social organization and the psychological
experience of individuals in a mutually reinforcing set. This means we have
gone a long way to specifying what Rappaport meant when he described reli-
gious communities as an adaptive system in the same class as living things.
Further, we can even consider religious community dynamics as represent-
ing a kind of autonomous self, which seems to be the central claim Durkheim
makes with respect to the religiously-charged sociality he describes (see Ch. 6).
This is because the reproductive form of such a semantically-closed loop is
importantly tied to Hofstadters idea of a strange loop, defined as an abstract
loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there
is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like
an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive
upwards shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. This definition is, of
course, formally similar to the concept of semantic closure as just discussed.
And Hofstadter equally emphasizes the shift from matter to symbol, and back
again, as does Pattee. But Hofstadter develops the concept of a strange loop to
apply both to biological organisms, and to the dynamics of human conscious
persons. Because of this, he analyzes strange loops from the higher-level per-
spective of ones conscious experience, not just from the perspective of the
lower-level parts involved in a dynamic process. That is, Hofstadter draws
attention to the fact that a strange loop is what we mean by a self, an agent, and
102 chapter 4

a conscious being. While he does not speculate (much) on the conscious expe-
rience of simple, single-celled organisms that are defined by a strange loop, he
does in fact note that such experience is entailed by his argument (2007, Chap. 1).
Given this fact, to argue that a religious community is a strange loop is to open
a theoretical Pandoras Box with respect to claiming such communities, viewed
as a single agent, might have experiences, as one could easily read Durkheim as
suggesting (as we will see). I quoted Deacon to this effect in the first chapter, as
well. For now, the point I want to make is to explicitly equate Rappaports con-
ception of metaperformativity, as discussed in the second chapter, with
Hofstadters conception of a strange loop.
Following Rappaports lead, from the perspective of ritual participants, the
combined effect of ritual and myth is to imply an extraordinary speaker; this is
what produces the powerful psychological and social effects we have exam-
ined. However, from the perspective of the religious community viewed as a
single system, that very organizational form is that of a strange loop, where an
agent (the implied extraordinary speaker) has a virtual existence, similar to
that of the personal, subjective I, mediated by the interdependence of encoded
memory (myth and ritual) and social dynamics.
Teleodynamics, strange loops, semantic closure each of these ideas is an
attempt to capture the logic of a system that acts as a self, with interests for the
future. I suggest this is a fair characterization of religious community dynam-
ics. The engine that makes this religious dynamic future oriented is that it
leaves a placeholder at its organizational center, like the subjectless sentence
fragment Gdel created to stand at the center of his Incompleteness Theorem.14
The Ultimate Sacred Postulates at the organizational center of a religious
community name an unseen, unknown divine Being or Way, which can lever-
age an experience that is created on the fly, through alternative forms of
consciousness and decentering. Like a performative utterance, the social and
psychological effects of the divine are realized as a result of positing the divine
as existing. The potentially endless re-production of divine content is entailed,
as is the community that lives by it. The dynamics of such a social organism
support the continued existence of the cybernetic religious system; thus,
religious communities exist first for themselves.
This is confirmed by Rappaport, who along with Durkheim originally
inspired the line of investigation of this book. He describes liturgical orders
one of his terms for the dynamically incoherent memory used in a religious
community to facilitate its self-reproducing dynamics as follows:

14 Recall Quines English version of the sentence, preceded by itself in quote marks yields
a full sentence. preceded by itself in quote marks yields a full sentence.
Religions Emergent Characteristics 103

Although liturgical orders are important in the regulation of social, polit-

ical, and ecological relations in many societies, they cannot be said to
reflect or represent those relations in any simple way...Some liturgies
make no reference to existing social arrangements or, if they do, they may
at the same time signify entities transcending the existing social order
and values from which the social order has, in fact, fallen away...
Liturgical orders in their wholeness do not simply or ultimately represent
the social, economic, political, or psychic orders prevailing. They repre-
sent which is to say they re-present themselves.
rappaport 1999, 262

I suggest a religious community can be seen as an emergent, symbolic, teleo-

dynamic entity with respect to its cultural environment in the same way a
biological organism can be seen as a symbolic teleodynamic entity with
respect to its chemical environment, and a human person can be seen as a
symbolic teleodynamic entity with respect to hominid psychology.
part 2
The Emergence of Meaning in Religion

chapter 5

David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett Religion

without Meaning

In Part One of this book, I defined religion as an emergent social phenomenon,

where mythic beliefs about the divine (a form of culturally-passed down mem-
ory) are taken up in ritual (a cultural practice) to link synergistically the psy-
chological experiences of individuals and the dynamics of group organization.
So far, I have addressed the question of religions organization fairly extensively,
following Rappaports approach, which focuses on the scientific question of
emergent organization. In Part Two of this book, I will focus more on the ques-
tion of religions meaningfulness, following Durkheims approach, which focuses
on the philosophical question of religions qualities and values. How might an
emergent account of religion contribute to our understanding of the meaning-
fulness of religious participation?
I will make the transition to this question by first focusing on recent scientific
accounts of religion that have effectively described religions profound organiza-
tional dynamics, but in terms that specifically ignore any emergent experiences,
values, or meaning. The accounts of David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett
should do nicely in this respect; they do an excellent job of exploring religion
from the perspective of evolutionary biology and cognitive science, and should
provide a foil for working through Durkheims account of the emergent qualities
of religious community participation. This will give us the background we need
to attempt a fuller account of these emergent qualities in the last chapter.

Wilsons Thesis

In an important contribution to the scientific study of religion, David Sloan

Wilson has utilized his years of experience as an evolutionary biologist to take
a fresh look at religion. Wilsons professional career has centered on develop-
ing multi-level selection theory, a biological theory about the evolution of
groups that has been gaining adherents in recent years. Wilsons proposal is an
expansion and clarification of the idea of group-level selection. The basic idea
of such selection is that genetic adaptations can accrue that turn individuals
who would normally have a reproductive strategy focusing exclusively on the
survival of the individual, into individuals whose reproductive strategy includes

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004293762_006

108 chapter 5

a focus on the survival of the relationships to which that individual is a part. For
this kind of change to occur, the networks of relationships to which individuals
belong must allow those individuals, on average, to out-reproduce those that
do not have such relationships, on average. Further, there must be some mech-
anism to control the spread of cheating by free-riders, who would gain the
benefits of group support without the cost of group-focus, and eventually
sabotage the groups average survival advantage. What is enlightening about
the multi-level approach, according to Wilson, is that it allows us to focus on
the different levels in which differences in fitness can be played out.
The question of how groups form out of basically self-centered individuals
is precisely the theoretical issue that got Wilson interested in religion. His
major treatment of the subject, 2002s Darwins Cathedral, is his attempt to
bring the rigor of evolutionary biology to the academic study of religion. It is
an important, thought-provoking work, and was followed by a study (Wilson
2005) analyzing 35 randomly chosen religious groups from the Encyclopedia of
Religion (Eliade 1987). The goal of this study was to see if the theoretical posi-
tion he developed in his book could withstand empirical testing.
Wilson writes that when evolutionists typically look at religion, they see it
either as (a) a nonfunctional outcome of affordances given by our biology (like
the ability to play sports); (b) a tool of exploitation by some of others; or (c) a
kind of cultural parasite that infects its hosts to the detriment of individuals
and groups. He claims, however, that these perspectives miss something cru-
cial. He notices that the superstitions, myths, and gods of many religious com-
munities are intimately related to matters of supreme practical importance,
such as food sharing. They unify a community, enabling it to increase its collec-
tive secular capabilities. Religion, he suggests, might best be thought of as a
tool supporting adaptive social functioning.
To test these intuitions, Wilson gathered evidence that would allow him to
decide between the different evolutionary hypotheses about religion. His study
looked at the descriptions of religion contained in a random sample of reli-
gious groups identified in the Encyclopedia of Religion. Do divine beliefs reli-
ably cause the members of religious groups to help each other and otherwise
function as adaptive units? By his assessment, the answer is primarily yes for
the religious groups in the random sample, and thus for those in the entire
encyclopedia. Whatever else religion is, the data suggests it functions to create
adaptive social groups. Most of the religions in the sample set and thus most
religions in the encyclopedia support the practical welfare of groups. Thus,
Wilson concludes that the nature of religion cannot be understood without
recognizing its secular utility (2005, 391). Portrayals of religion as primarily
nonfunctional and individually selfishcan be rejected on the basis of the
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 109

survey (2005, 404). Thus, for Wilson, belief in the divine can be explained as
an adaptation1 for regulating human conduct.
The benefits of religion tend to be public goods, which are costly to indi-
viduals to produce. From the perspective of evolution, the basic problem with
respect to understanding any such behavior is to explain how selfish individual
tendencies can be overcome, making possible behavior that is of benefit to
others. How does religion facilitate this social-mindedness? Wilson draws on
his experience in thinking about the origin of groups in biology, and proposes
some ideas taken from that field. The first critical idea is that religion repre-
sents social control features.
A social control feature is a simple mechanism that links selfish individuals
together. A chromosome is one example, since it links genes that otherwise
would act selfishly2 so that they have to work together in order to replicate.
Social control features allow a trade-off to occur between group benefit and
individual cost. What does Wilson see as a social control feature among reli-
gious groups? What functions like a chromosome in religion? Wilson argues
that cultural ideas and practices that enhance groupishness and restrict selfish-
ness have been explored and selected in religions. He sees religious communi-
ties as groups of selfish individuals bound together by cultural ideas and practices
to function as adaptive units. Wilson writes:

In their specific behavioral prescriptions, theological beliefs, and social

practices, most religions are impressively designed to provide a set of
instructions for how to behave, to promote cooperation among group
members, and to prevent passive freeloading and active exploitation
within the group (2005, 385).

Thus, he believes behavioral prescriptions, theological beliefs, and specific

social practices are what act as social control features.
Group selection produces a tendency towards cooperation, but has to con-
tend with (and usually loses to) the tendency to behave selfishly. Only the pure
forms of religion that participants idealize in their minds look like the product
of pure group selection. In real, lived religious communities, the ideals of the
group and the selfish individual are battling each other, giving us the mixed
bag that is real religion. Ultimately, Wilson sees religions behaving like a

1 Wilson may be primarily thinking of a cultural adaptation, if I am reading him correctly. In

my opinion, his account of which kind of adaptation biological or cultural he is speaking
of is not consistent across Darwins Cathedral.
2 For an account of what is meant by genes acting selfishly, see Dawkins (2006).
110 chapter 5

societal organism such as an ant colony an aggregate of different individual

parts fitted together in an adaptively functioning whole.
How did religion come to play this role? Wilson thinks that a religious com-
munity is primarily a moral community (and in this, he explicitly acknowl-
edges his debt to Durkheim). Wilson argues that, prior to religion, both human
morality and culture were already evolving as social control features, but these
were powerfully extended by religious belief. Following moral theorists like
Boehm (1999), Wilson considers that modern humanity sprung from hunter-
gatherer societies that populated Africa over the past 150,000 years. Wilson
argues that these early humans must have genetically evolved a specialized
cognitive architecture making small groups of people psychologically prepared
to bind themselves into functional units. The results of this adaptation are
seen today; he argues, following Ellickson (1991), that humans naturally estab-
lish, enforce, and abide by social norms, even in the absence of a formal legal
system. Early hunter-gatherer societies must have developed a strong and
shared moral sense that directed them toward a common purpose; for them,
right coincided with group welfare, and wrong corresponded with self-serving
acts at the expense of other group members. So, Wilson argues, if religion is
fundamentally about binding groups together, it rides on top of genetically-
given moral endowments; religious morality is not purely a result of culture.
Wilson also notes that a defining characteristic of the last 150,000 years of
human sociality has been an increasing reliance on culture practices and
ideas passed on from generation to generation through non-genetic means.
These informal customs and ideas about social organization differ from society
to society. Wilson suggests this capacity arose when genetic evolution provided
the conditions for cultural evolutionary processes to develop, which also took
advantage of the basic principles of variation, reproduction, and selection. A
culture evolves as individuals express their capacity to explore variations of
ideas, make selections from those variations (either consciously or not), and to
reproduce those selections with some degree of fidelity from generation to
generation. Cultural systems can evolve intelligently, even if no single individ-
ual or group is providing the foresighted guidance necessary for that intelli-
gence. Further, they can adapt more quickly to recent environments that can
biology, since they rely on fast-responding human brains, rather than slower
genetic processes. Besides our evolved moral nature, then, cultural evolution is
another factor that increases the potency of selection among groups, and
decreases the potency of selection within groups, compared to what would be
expected on the basis of genetic evolution alone. Culture links people together
in a way that tips the balance of individual behavior towards working within
the group as an adaptive unit.
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 111

If both morality and culture already push humans towards group selection,
what does religion add? Wilson argues that religious beliefs magnify the effec-
tiveness of our evolved morality and evolving culture as social control fea-
tures. To explain how, Wilson analyzes the catechisms used by Calvin in Geneva
as a representative case. He concludes that in this form of Calvinism we see the
guarded egalitarianism characterizing hunter-gatherer morality extended by
such cultural add-ons as belief in the Calvinist God, to make hunter-gatherer
morality work on a large-scale. We can characterize his general hypothesis in
this way: religion is biological morality extended by cultural evolution in support
of biologically adaptive coordinated action. This, Wilson argues is an example of
group selection. He outlines the principles of this claim in six axioms (2002,
51), which I will paraphrase and compress here:

1. Some resources and commodities of value can only be gained through

the coordinated action of individuals. When this type of coordinated
action occurs, we can say such individuals are functioning together as an
adaptive unit.
2. Moral systems cause human groups to function as adaptive units.
3. Moral systems are frequently expressed religiously. The nature of super-
natural agents and their relationship with humans can be explained as
adaptations that enable human groups to function adaptively; these
adaptations are the result of the blind variation and selective retention
of religious ideas.3
4. Group-level adaptations do not easily occur; well-functioning groups
must outcompete other groups for such adaptations to be selected.

Going beyond this specific argument, which he carefully analyzes and sup-
ports, Wilson claims that a profitable line for investigating religion would be to
see how it is distinct from other forms of culturally-created sociality. Wilson
says one of his goals is to understand what all unifying [social] systems have
in common and why they vary in ways that impel us to categorize some as
religious, others as political and so on (2002, 222). He notes, for example, that
a chief conclusion of his empirical research on religious groups is that church
and state are in the same business of organizing the lives of a group of people
(2005, 391). He suggests, without further elaboration, that there are formal,
organizational reasons to distinguish them. He concludes, A good religion is
awesome in the degree to which it organizes behavior and replicates itself
through time. The mechanisms that enable all of this nongenetic information

3 Although it is possible that some religious adaptations are consciously taken up or imitated.
112 chapter 5

to be encoded, expressed under the right conditions, and faithfully transmitted

must be very sophisticated indeed. Theoretical models of cultural evolution
have not yet grasped this degree of sophistication (2005, 399). As I have
already argued, emergence theory gives us the tools we need to grasp and
articulate the sophisticated way religion encodes and expresses nongenetic
social information, differentiating it from politics and other social forms.

Is Religion Best Assessed by a Biological Theory?

Put in perspective with the other evolutionary views about religion that Wilson
challenges, we must note that Wilson may be onto something. Against those
who argue that religion is primarily a kind of failed science, or an insidious
mental virus, Wilson suggests that religious groups utilize powerful strategies
for insuring group welfare, and thus may contribute to the reproductive suc-
cess of individuals in such groups. We should expect to see, if his theory is
correct, that group-level selection pressures should limit the presence of theo-
logical beliefs that merely satisfy the urge to explain without insuring group
welfare, or that motivate dysfunctional reproductive behaviors.
What can we point to as a possible criticism of his theory? His basic argu-
ment is as follows: multi-level selection theory still considered controversial
by some should be extended to include cultural evolution, not just genetic
evolution. Culture can provide the control features that bind individuals
together in reproductively favorable arrangements, and thus ideas, and not just
genes, can be selected and passed on, based on how they perform in supporting
the average reproductive success of individuals in groups. Those groups whose
members successfully out-reproduce the members of other groups will have
their particular religious ideas passed on, as they transmit their religious beliefs
to their children; over time, these religious ideas will replace alternative ideas
held by less successful groups. The key idea of Wilsons approach, then, is that
the primary determinant of whether this religious idea will replace that reli-
gious idea is how the group that entertains the idea functions as an adaptive unit,
as defined biologically. He assumes that religious beliefs will be passed on verti-
cally, from parent to child, and says that the mechanism by which some reli-
gious beliefs will come to replace others is the successful biological reproduction
of the group members that holds the belief. These assumptions permeate
Wilsons analysis, and are reasonable, from the perspective of a biologist.
It is important to realize, however, that Wilsons theory is ultimately insensi-
tive to the difference between biological and cultural selection pressures. Both
biology and culture, on Wilsons analysis, function correctly when they
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 113

support biological reproduction. Thus, Wilson reduces religion to a tool of bio-

logical survival. There are many examples of this sort of reasoning in Darwins
Cathedral. For example, he claims that religion exists to provide collective ben-
efits to its members measured in terms of survival and reproduction; religion is
fundamentally a solution to basic needs (2002, 1834). He argues that mem-
bers of religious groups should prosper in the basic biological sense more than
isolated individuals or members of less adaptively organized groups. While he
acknowledges that religions may change some aspects of what people want,
religion is built upon the foundation of providing what all people want,
through the coordinated action of groups. Secular utility is the ultimate selec-
tion pressure being exerted on religious ideas. Belief systems must motivate
adaptive behaviors (as defined biologically) in this world.
In this sense, both he and his intellectual sparring partners share an assump-
tion religious beliefs are in no way true or meaningful for individuals for any
other reason than that they ultimately contribute to reproductive success. He
notes that adaptive traits in biology always require two explanations the
mechanism that causes the adaptation (its proximate cause), and the environ-
mental selection force that selects that mechanism for what it does (its ulti-
mate cause). Just as having a sweet tooth served as a reason (proximate cause)
for an adaptive response in early humans (eating fruit), but the actual selec-
tion pressure had to do with the need for vitamin C (ultimate cause), so a given
belief might exist and even appear to be meaningful for any number of
reasons, but ultimately it persists because it supports a groups reproductive
functioning relative to another group.
This perspective allows one to reason about religion according to one simple
standard; and I suggest it is too simple. Consider psychologist and skeptic Susan
Blackmores (2010) admission of error about religion in a comment for The
Guardian newspaper, which I will quote in part below. She argues that as a result
of new data, she had to revise her earlier, negative views of religion. She writes,

Are religions viruses of the mind? I would have replied with an unequivo-
cal yes until a few days ago when some shocking data suggested I am
wrong. This happened at a conference in Bristol on Explaining religion.
About a dozen speakers presented research and philosophical argu-
ments, mostly falling into two camps: one arguing that religions are bio-
logically adaptive, the other that they are by-products of cognitive
mechanisms that evolved for other reasons. I spoke first, presenting the
view from memetics that religions begin as by-products but then evolve
and spread, like viruses, using humans to propagate themselves for their
own benefit and to the detriment of the people they infect
114 chapter 5

This was all in my mind when Michael Blume got up to speak on The
reproductive advantage of religion. With graph after convincing graph
he showed that all over the world and in many different ages, religious
people have had far more children than nonreligious people Data from
82 countries showed almost a straight line plot of the number of children
against the frequency of religious worship, with those who worship more
than once a week averaging 2.5 children and those who never worship
only 1.7 again below replacement rate All this suggests that religious
memes are adaptive rather than viral from the point of view of human

If Wilsons theory of religion is correct and religion answers to biological

adaptation alone, the reasons given for Blackmores change of mind higher
reproductive rates represents the whole story that needs to be told about
religion. This is the ultimate cause of religion, the only salient factor for assess-
ing it, and the only thing of value that it contributes. While it may not be that
Blackmore and Wilson actually think this narrowly about religion, the point is,
the only standard of value given by Wilsons theory for assessing religion boils
down to this.
Thus, Wilson argues that in an ultimate sense (as defined above), philoso-
pher of religion Huston Smith (1991a) is wrong when he says religion accom-
plishes community, but is about more than community. Wilson turns this idea
on its head and suggests that though ideas of God are not about community,
they exist because they cause feelings that undergird community. Like the
pleasure of sex that exists (ultimately) to ground reproduction, [t]hese exalted
feelings may have evolved, both biologically and culturally, precisely because
of their utilitarian consequences (2002, 176). If religious beliefs motivate adap-
tive behaviors, they are relevant to the functional, adaptive explanation of reli-
gion; if they fail to, they are nonfunctional (2005, 393). That is all that can or
needs to be said about religious belief.
I suggest that an adequate account of religion must be able to register that
human beings are able to define their place and value in the world in terms
that go beyond mere biological survival. Both religious and nonreligious ideas
can be meaningful to individuals, and valued at a cultural level, for reasons
that go beyond reproduction. In fact, it is precisely the detachment of religions
potent motivations from biological standards of human flourishing that fright-
ens Daniel Dennett, who considers this possibility a threat to the long-term
survival of the human race. Biological theory can only give us one assessment
of this capability, and it is negative. By investigating religion from a different
vantage point, however, we might find clues as to why religious belief, though
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 115

largely supportive of biological reproduction, as Wilsons data indicates, might

not reduce to this function, and might not be valued only because it supports
this function.
When Wilson talks about the nonadaptive nature of religion, such as the
celibate Shakers or the suicidal Jonestown cult (2005, 386), he is acknowledg-
ing that even if the data does suggest that most religions support human repro-
ductive flourishing, they may not exist for that purpose; there is more to the
story than biological reproduction. If Shakerism had really caught on and I
see no reason why it couldnt have isnt it possible that it could have run the
human race to extinction, and that the last group of Shakers alive would still be
convinced that what they were doing represented something meaningful,
important, true, good, and beautiful? When the last surviving Jews at the
Masada fortress committed group suicide, rather than surrendering to the
Romans, presumably they considered what they were doing to be heroic and
good. What is it about religion that allows it to contradict biological standards
of value? What could make the religious think that what they believe trumps
individual and group survival? And how should we assess this potential?
Rappaport (1999) has argued that one of the most important aspects of
human evolution is what he calls the evolution of humanity, which is not a
fact about homo sapiens in their physiological or neuroanatomical develop-
ment, but rather a fact about how culture turns the tables on biological evolu-
tion. Culture, Rappaport argues, invites a great inversion where the
importance of ideas trumps the biological survival of the species that has
ideas. The ideas that are most central to human social systems are about things
such as Honor, Freedom, Fatherland, and the Good (1999, 10), and the preser-
vation of such ideas has often required great and even ultimate sacrifice of
both individuals and groups to preserve them. Ideas such as better dead than
Red involve more than just pragmatic concern for higher reproductive rates,
and ideas such as a hyper-individualism, nihilism, or hedonism may negate
biological reproduction as a value at all.
Meaningfulness, I argue, represents a different reason for forming groups
than biological fecundity, though I would not dispute Wilsons claims that
many religions do in fact contribute to human group behavior that supports
biological fecundity. All things being equal, a religious group that provides
meaning and supports biological reproduction will outcompete a religious
group that provides meaning without supporting biological reproduction.
I will further explore the difference between biological and cultural selec-
tion pressures, and the question of religions tie to biological reproduction, by
turning to the ideas of the other thinker I will recount in this chapter, Daniel
116 chapter 5

Daniel Dennetts View of Religion

Daniel Dennetts Breaking the Spell (2006) is a summary, defense, and critique
of much of the current science of religion literature, by a philosopher whose
evaluation of religions place in human life might be described as skeptical,
but open. The strength of his book is the way he compellingly weaves together
current scientific theories of religion to tell a narrative of the origins of religion
in humanitys evolutionary history. In addition, Dennett offers a defense of a
memetic or viral approach to religion that offers an alternative to the group
selection approach of Wilson, and he goes beyond the exclusively negative
caricatures of religion offered by others in the new atheist camp. He offers his
book as an opening serve for a discussion with other, scientifically-minded
religious theorists, and challenges them to return a volley by refining his
approach and offering compelling alternatives. I wish to be viewed as taking up
this challenge, introducing to the discussion the powerful theoretical tools that
current emergence theory offers.
Dennett defines religion as social systems whose participants avow belief
in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought (2006, 9).
Immediately, we see that he thinks religion fundamentally represents a social
phenomenon, which puts him in the company of thinkers like Durkheim,
Rappaport, and Wilson. Further, like them, he recognizes that what is of inter-
est is the way beliefs about the divine cause and/or flow out of religious social-
ity; he writes that the core phenomenon of religioninvokes gods who are
effective agents in real time, and who play a central role in the way the partici-
pants think about what they ought to do (2006, 1112). From my perspective,
he is correct in his claim that it is the causal role of divine agency that is central
to religion, as well as his claim that seeking the approval of the divine charac-
terizes the core attitude of religious practice. The question is, does Dennett
offer a compelling explanation for either theme, from the perspective he devel-
ops in Breaking the Spell?
Dennett, as might be guessed from the title of his book, does not think
that divine entities exist. People mistakenly believe that the divine is a causal
force in their lives, though this mistaken belief might be useful in ways that
have nothing to do with its truth. Religious ideas do not invite feedback from
anything in the world; thus, they do not produce results that demonstrate
that religious people know what they are talking about. Dennett, then,
beyond claiming the divine does not exist, rejects (or does not consider) the
possibility that there are consistent, if subtle, feedback effects in the dynam-
ics of religious community participation that have wrongly been interpreted
as pointing to the divine. As we will see, this distinguishes his position from
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 117

Durkheims. The distinction is important; modern physics might explain why

hardness as such does not exist in the world, but it also explains the real
phenomenon that is responsible for why people think the term refers to
something; physics uses a false belief as a clue to something else that does
exist. For Dennett, religious ideas are errors, period. Any purported experien-
tial feedback from religious belief is due to chance or the projection of psy-
chological need.
For this reason, Dennett specifically questions the idea that religion needs
to be studied as an entity on its own level. That is, he questions whether
there is any content justifying religious studies as a distinct field; it adds
nothing that couldnt be gained by studying religion from the perspectives of
evolutionary psychology and biology, history, anthropology, and cognitive
science. He specifically rejects Eliades claim that studying religion from
other perspectives leaves out the sacred, something otherwise unknown
about religion that participation in religion might teach us. This is different
from Dennetts views concerning biology, for example; he believes there are
unique aspects to life that justify biology as an independent science from
chemistry and physics. Thus, his approach in Breaking the Spell is to intro-
duce, distinguish, criticize, and defend the main lines of science of religion
literature that explains religion by reducing it to something else. This he
undertakes in the bulk of his book, and it makes for a fairly compelling
account, worth taking seriously.
The fundamental datum that governs his explanation of religion is that reli-
gion looks designed. This means either (a) religion has evolved biologically, or
(b) it is the product of rational reflection, like corporations, universities, and
professional sports, or (c) its design comes from cultural selection processes
invisible to religious believers. Dennett argues against the idea that religion
has evolved biologically; there is nothing like a (genetically) heritable spiritual
sense that boosts genetic fitness, and religious convictions are not like having
epileptic seizures or blue eyes. There wont be a god gene or a spirituality gene,
or a religious experience center, for example (2006, 31516). Rather, the compo-
nent parts of religion are due to a convergence of several different overactive
dispositions, sensitivities, and other co-opted adaptations that have nothing to
do with God or religion, which result in a tendency towards religious or mytho-
logical beliefs.
If religion looks designed but is not a result of biological evolution, its com-
ponent parts resulting from randomly-arising side-effects of other evolved
characteristics, where does the design come from? While self-reflective and
literate world religions may include a significant degree of rational design,
Dennett believes that invisible selection forces have done the bulk of the work
118 chapter 5

sculpting the deep commonalities and patterns that govern religion world-
wide. How do these invisible selection forces work to produce religions design?
As a clue, he notes that religious beliefs are reproduced by ritual; he views rit-
ual as an effective memory enhancer, improving the copying fidelity of reli-
gious ideas. This fact suggests how selection processes are acting in religion:
ritual grounds the relatively faithful copying of ideas, which suggests that reli-
gion is a result of memetic evolution, not genetic evolution.
Inspired by a gene-centered view of biological evolution, memetics claims
that packets of cultural, behavioral4 and linguistic information can be viewed
as being in a moment-by-moment competition with each other for brain-
space in human beings. Most ideas are encoded linguistically, and can be
transferred from brain to brain through the spread and sharing of words. If we
let nature take its course, some of these packets of cultural, behavioral, and
linguistic information will be passed on from brain to brain better than others.
These packets of information, on analogy to genes, can be called memes, as
cultural information packets or recipes for doing something.
Consider that in America in the early 1970s, two memes the phrase cool,
and the phrase far-out competed for brain space as a linguistic expression of
approval. For various different reasons, cool outcompeted far-out, and in fact
cool has shown itself to possess a remarkable facility to cross generations and
cultures, having originated in the African-American jazz culture of the 1940s.
Cool, on this account, is a remarkably effective replicator, a successful meme.
Given the alternatives, selection has produced a term with wide appeal, an
ideal term with the right combination of associations, phonemes, and word
length to express approval.
According to Dennetts meme theory of religion, religious ideas as memes
do not have to be true, but merely attractive; their proliferation depends on
their ability to attract hosts one way or another (2006, 186). Human minds
have been hijacked by attractive religious ideas for reasons other than their
truthfulness. What allows this is the adaptive biases of our evolved psychol-
ogy, which when extended beyond their evolved role by the abstracting
power of language, give rise to predictable components of religious beliefs.
Religious ideas compel religious people to maintain social institutions that
serve the transmission of those ideas, professing beliefs at the expense of
rationality and truth. Dennett argues that in fact, the success of religious

4 Easily specifiable behaviors that can be imitated can be passed on as memes. Consider
Michael Jordans habit of sticking out his tongue while playing basketball, or wiping off the
bottom of his shoes before shooting free-throws. Both were (and still are) widely copied
behaviors of many would-be and actual basketball stars.
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 119

memes depends on more than just their fit with our evolved psychological
biases. For example, other, non-religious memes may act as cultural immuni-
ties and receptivities for religion. Scientific memes of skepticism and ratio-
nality might inoculate hosts from religion, and the good tricks of religious
memes might facilitate their spread. Such good tricks include bundling a
religious meme with another one that urges parents to teach young children
religion before their critical faculties develop, or a meme that urges some
religious members to forego sexual reproduction to better serve the trans-
mission of religious memes. The differential reproduction of complexes of
memes has produced highly ingenious sets of religious ideas that very effec-
tively reproduce in human brains.
Once allegiance is captured, a host can be turned into a rational servant of
those memes, using his or her intellectual resources to justify and perfect them.
For the religious, their memes appear valuable for reasons transcending the
genetic imperatives of biology. The survival of these memes, not the survival of
the individual believer or their reproductive impulse, is most important.
Dennett notes that religious people dont shrink from the idea that they have
been commandeered by a meme that trumps their reproductive instinct; they
embrace it (2006, 187).
We can see that one of the most important innovations of meme theory is
the claim that memes have their own fitness as replicators, independent of any
contribution they may or may not make to their hosts, including the genetic
fitness of their hosts. Now as a matter of fact, successful memes might be effec-
tive reproducers because they somehow do benefit biological reproduction
consider memes that emphasize the value of health and medicine, and
contribute to healthy childbirth. In that case, the meme would be a mutualist
symbiont, benefitting itself by benefitting the biological reproduction of its
host. But a meme can theoretically survive as a parasite by effectively jumping
from brain to brain, spreading through the population faster than its neutral or
negative effect on sexual reproduction can kill it off. From the perspective of
biological evolution, a meme can oppress its hosts with an affliction. Memes
may help, neither help nor hurt, or hurt the individuals involved in terms of
their biological reproduction.5
It is possible, writes Dennett, that memes for religion have co-evolved with
human biological needs in such a way that religious memes support biological
survival; they may be a cultural invention like money, useful for the way they
grease the wheels of human social cooperation such that biological impera-
tives can proceed more effectively in a group context. In claiming this, Dennett

5 As is the case with real viruses, biologically defined.

120 chapter 5

is suggesting that cultural evolution, though free to sample all sorts of varia-
tions of memes, has stumbled upon those ideas that contribute to social soli-
darity, and thus, presumably, biological reproduction. In the case of religion, it
is likely that religious participation creates bonds of trust that permit groups of
individuals to act together more effectively.
Because religious participation is an irrational source of sociality (because
it was not instituted rationally for its social contribution, but rather, memes for
religion stumbled upon such an arrangement), allegiance to religion and
allegiance to the social good of humanity, though largely coincident, are not
interchangeable. There is no guarantee that the religious will conclude that
the good of humanity is the purpose of their religion. Typically, the good of
religious memes is that which religious people are most invested in. Religious
people take on the goal of fostering, protecting, and spreading the Word
(2006, 177). Perhaps the right analogy for this dynamic is found in the money
example Dennett uses; though money was an invention stumbled upon in
circumstances where it was functionally useful for facilitating exchange, its
purpose in this respect can be easily forgotten or ignored. Some people may
become so invested in money and making money that it becomes an end in
itself, and can actually work against the social contribution it once represented.
Systems of exchange, and peoples commitment to the meme of money, can
diverge from the society-supporting constraints that were the original circum-
stances of its evolution.
As Dennett notes many of the same features of religion Wilsons does,
Dennett considers Wilsons arguments important, even if he doesnt follow
Wilson in his claim about group selection (point four on p. 83). Wilson thinks
that rival religious groups compete with each other by out-reproducing each
other, as a result of the adaptive benefits their religious ideas give them. This
leads to the extinction of biologically maladaptive religious ideas and the sur-
vival of groups that benefit from biologically adaptive ideas. Dennett suggests
this is too narrow a view of religions spread. We should consider culture as a
horizontal vector for the spread of ideas. Ideas spread from person to person
and group to group, outside the vertical channels of parental care and chil-
drens education. He thinks this offers a better explanation for the spread of
religion than competition between groups.
What we in fact see with religion, according to Dennett, is the differential
replication of ideas that have an impact on groups, not the differential (biologi-
cal) reproduction of groups of individuals who hold religious ideas. Wilsons
error, therefore, is he doesnt distinguish between a group defined by an idea,
and that reproduces because the ideas of the group spread, and a group defined
by biological reproduction, which reproduces because the ideas they hold
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 121

cause the group to reproduce biologically better than other groups.6 Wilson
himself rejects a meme theory of religion, and Dennett claims he does so in
part because Wilson thinks it necessarily requires thinking that religious
memes are a cultural parasite that evolves at the expense of human individuals
and groups. Religion must therefore be dysfunctional on this account. But
Dennett points out that memes can be neutral commensals with respect to
biological evolution, or even helpful mutualists.
Dennett proposes a mild memetic alternative to Wilsons approach, in
order to highlight the cross-culture and cross-group spread of religious ideas,
as distinct from the vertical transmission of religious ideas within lineages of
isolated, competing groups:

Memes that foster human group solidarity are particularly fit (as memes)
in circumstances in which host survival (and hence host fitness) most
directly depends on hosts joining forces in groups. The success of such
meme-infested groups is itself a potent broadcasting device, enhancing
outgroup curiosity (and envy) and thus permitting linguistic, ethnic, and
geographic boundaries to be more readily penetrated (2006, 1845).

Thus, a meme theory of religion, according to Dennett, can in principle account

for the excellence of design encountered in religion (without postulating
rational designers), and it can account for the fact that individual fitness is
apparently subordinated to group fitness in religion. We need not postulate
group-replication tournaments that are implied in a group-selection approach,
but only a cultural environment in which ideas compete (2006, 185). Ideas that
encourage people to act together in groups will spread more effectively as a
result of this groupishness than ideas that do a less effective job of uniting
individuals together.
I think Dennetts criticisms and friendly amendment to Wilson are helpful,
complementing Wilsons analysis of the powerful effect of religion on group
dynamics. Recall that Wilson argues that religion provides social control fea-
tures that bind individuals together into groups. This is true, whether or not

6 Dennett claims that Wilson, though claiming to explain religion in terms of group selection,
isnt in fact doing so. Wilson says the excellent traits of one religion often get copied by other,
unrelated religions; this means, according to Dennett, [Wilson] is already committed to
tracing the ease of host-hopping by innovations quite independently of any vertical trans-
mission of the features to descendant groups (2006, n. 5, p. 403). According to Dennett,
Wilson in fact is arguing that the evolutionary design process that has given us religions
involves the differential replication of memes, not groups (2006, 184).
122 chapter 5

those features are passed on vertically within competing groups, as group-

selection theory would suggest, or horizontally across individuals and groups
as ideas compete with each other, as a mutualist meme theory would suggest.
Wilson correctly points to religions effect, and offers important tools for
understanding that effect, while grounding his perspective in a theory that
unnecessarily ties him to an approach to culture that may be too limited.
Ill mention briefly one other idea Dennett takes seriously. He suggests that
religions may provide intensified versions of something we evolved for, but in
a new context that doesnt necessarily justify the behavior any longer. He is
thinking of our ability to be hypnotized, and the possible health benefits that
such a capacity might have contributed in our evolutionary past. It is possible
we have a hypnotizability enabler center in the brain, which through cultural
expansion, has been taken over by religion, which provides intense input to it.
This would explain why healing rituals seem to be a nearly universal feature of
religion, but would also explain a lot of the pomp and wasted energy in reli-
gion, as we hypnotize ourselves religiously far beyond what is necessary to sup-
port the placebo effect. As far as I can tell, this is the closest Dennett (or Wilson)
goes to addressing religious experience and altered states of consciousness.
I will take up this theme in my comments, below.
To summarize the case Dennett makes, he considers religion to be a set of
cultural ideas that have been transmitted successfully and blindly, evolving to
take on properties that make it fit with our evolved psychology. These ideas
may have indirectly but strongly contributed to our social tendencies (and
thus probably to our biological survival), and might have provided particular
health benefits through the judicious manipulation of the placebo effect.
However, thanks to the recent rise of philosophical self-reflection thinking
about thinking we no longer need to rely on the blind variation and selection
of cultural ideas, which represent humanitys previous method of cultural
progress. We can reflect on our cultural life in ways unprecedented to our
(probably much older) religious heritage. The outcome of this self-reflection is
that we can distinguish between ideas that help us survive in the natural world
and help us create fair and just societies (science and philosophy), and those
that give us no leverage on the natural world, and rely upon blind evolution to
support sociality (religion). If there are positive attributes of religion, in the
modern world they have been rendered largely irrelevant. And the negative
attributes of religion memes that invite commitment but are not necessarily
in sync with social welfare; anti-scientific beliefs about the natural world;
highly contagious ideas that siphon off a large portion of human energy and
commitment are significant enough to give us pause. Religion as currently
practiced is the increasingly irrelevant tutor whose continued presence now
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 123

competes with its rightful heir: enlightened thought, particularly enlightened

scientific and social/political thought. This suggests religion is something that
needs to be controlled, and if not eliminated, at least rendered innocuous,
unable to prey on people unenlightened to its origins, strategies, and costs.

Response from an Emergent Approach to Religion

Wilsons approach to religion, modified by Dennetts friendly amendment, is a

very powerful view of religion that has much overlap with the emergent
approach I am advocating. The emergent approach I developed in Ch. 2
acknowledges the socially adaptive nature of religious communities at the
heart of Wilsons approach, as well as the reproduction of the memory compo-
nent of myths at the heart of Dennetts memetic approach. Dennett improves
upon Wilson by giving us reasons for thinking that Wilson over-relies on a bio-
logical theory to explain religion, while affirming the attributes of religion
Wilson champions. But the central issue neither thinker addresses is this: is it
possible that religious memes replicate for reasons other than ease of trans-
mission, and other than their ultimate support of biological reproduction?
Dennett acknowledges the peculiar meaningfulness of religion to people, and
the way it has the potential to bring out the best in people. While he does not
think religion is uniquely competent in this respect (having a child and fight-
ing alongside others in war are two other conditions that can bring out the best
in people), he suggest that probably nothing is as effective as religion over the
long haul, and day-in day-out for inspiring individuals to a life bigger and less
selfish than it otherwise might be (2006, 45). Why might this be so? It does
not seem that either Wilsons or Dennetts account offers us ways to make
sense of this capacity of religion. To gain insight into this question, let us pursue
some leads that Dennett offers us.
Dennett acknowledges that genetic evolution and memetic evolution are
actually governed by distinct selection factors representing the different envi-
ronments that genetic and cultural evolution depend upon. Benefitting human
genetic fitness is not the same thing as benefitting human happiness or human
welfare. He notes that humans often set aside personal interests, their health,
and their chance to have children to devote their lives to ideas. This distin-
guishes us from the rest of the animal world. No one, he argues, would say the
most important thing in life is to have more grandchildren than ones rivals. In
fact, because we are a knowing species, we must use knowledge to adapt our
practices to cope with our biological imperatives (2006, 73). Presumably, for
us to cope with our biological imperatives, we must have access to some
124 chapter 5

values that give us perspective on our biological imperatives, placing them in

some hierarchy of greater and lesser values.
He argues that though our biological constitution may value reproductive fit-
ness above all else, this does not mean that we ought to value replication above
all! (2006, 6970). The we in this sentence must be more than a conglomera-
tion of biological fitness drives, as this we has the capacity to value things
differently than reproductive fitness might value things. He also suggests that it
is possible that mutualist religious memes might provide undeniable benefits
of sorts that cannot be found elsewhere (2006, 309). But he is largely silent on
what those benefits are, and how religion might facilitate them.
Nor does he think biological fitness is the guide to morality; fitness and
moral values are completely different questions (2006, 177). Again, this sug-
gests that things that have the potential to make us the most happy, that allows
us to do right, and that represents our best interests, are not encoded or
encodable in our genes. Dennett acknowledges that science, though it may
amplify human powers, cannot answer all questions or serve all needs. It does
not, for example, provide or establish the values our ethical judgments and
arguments are based on (2006, 376).
When assessing religion at the end of the book, Dennett states what he
thinks the highest moral values are, which he does not think are dictated by
our biological fitness imperatives. They have to do with the ability to make an
informed choice, to be educated, to be free from indoctrination, and to be able
to pursue meaning. He claims that western, liberal, individualistic democracy
is better than any cultural world-views that would deny these moral values, par-
ticularly to children. He suggests two of the most important values that tran-
scend our biological imperative are love of truth and justice; these values are
presupposed by human projects we all participate in (2006, 376).
Dennett, therefore, to be consistent, must be some sort of emergentist. This
we that has the capacity to evaluate by standards other than reproductive fit-
ness, that recognizes the value of western liberal democracy because it values
the individual and the transcendent values of truth and justice, that values the
ability to make an informed choice and to be free from indoctrination this
we must be an emergent reality. Human values must represent new goods
that only exist at the level of human selves, and specifically do not exist at the
level of our biological selves. When we combine these facts with Dennetts
observation about religions meaningfulness and capacity to allow us to tran-
scend ourselves, we can surmise that religion somehow is able to address and
make sense of the unexplained value and emergent presence of the human indi-
vidual (which Dennett presupposes but does not explain), in order to be as
meaningful and effective as it is.
David Sloan Wilson and Daniel Dennett 125

Like the hanging chads that became part of the American conversation
after the 2000 election does this partially-separated chad on a voting ticket
represent a vote or not? we exist with respect to our biological and physical
selves as both dependent upon them and unaccounted for by them. We are
free to interfere with or accelerate our physical and biological tendencies
according to values that we alone seem able to experience and know. The more
we learn about ourselves through the lens of science, the more power we have
to use that knowledge to change our individual and corporate destiny through
our intervention in the natural course of things, according to values that dont
exist in that course. We exist as selves, orthogonal but connected somehow to
our physical and biological composition, and with that orthogonal connection
seems to come new values and goods. If we are to seek explanation for this fact,
or to find out what can make our lives meaningful, given our own limited tran-
scendence of the realms we can control, we seem to need an account of some-
thing that is able to both register and overflow this capacity, something superior
to us, something with the capacity to place us as existential beings. Our own
subjectivity, to be meaningfully placed, needs to be anchored within a system
of larger subjective relations that ensconces the mystery of our existence in a
larger sense of existence. Religion seems capable of doing this; why it is able to
do so is the supreme task facing those who would understand religion. I suggest
that since the emergence of the self is what creates the conditions for perceiv-
ing the problem in the first place, further emergent dynamics might explain
why religion can be experienced as a solution.
What clearly is the case from my perspective, anyway is that neither
Dennetts nor Wilsons explanation of religious ideas is able to account for reli-
gions meaningfulness. Dennett argues that religion is based on the gradual
accretion of memetic good tricks (ideas that take advantage of cracks in our
evolved psychological dispositions) that surround the irritant provided by
the false alarms generated by overextended biases of our psychological nature
(such as our overactive disposition to look for agents). Even if, as he proposes,
hypnotic induction became involved at some point, and is still an important
aspect of religion (which might go part of the way to explain such meaningful-
ness), it seems that there is something else driving the religious enterprise in
the first place.
Religion asks and answers questions about the nature of the meaningful,
the beautiful, the true, and the good; to reduce religion to good tricks of selfish
memes and conglomerations of cognitive error would seem to vastly under-
state what needs explaining. Religion seems tied to what transcends mundane
human existence. While I would agree with Dennett that religion is not always
a force for good in the world, my point is that, whether for good or ill, religion
126 chapter 5

seems to magnify aspects of ourselves that seem most characteristically

human, most refined, most rich and that includes our capacity for evil. In
accounting for the motivations for religion, a good theory had better be able to
address such questions better than alternatives, and I hope to show that an
emergent approach to religion does so.
There is no better starting point in this respect than investigating the
approach of mile Durkheim, who built The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
on the assumption that humanity is more than our biology and evolved char-
acteristics; we have become, through language, a dual-natured creature: we are
biologically individual, and participants in an emergent social entity.
chapter 6

mile Durkheim and the Emergence

of Meaningful Social Agency

The central argument in the seminal text in religious studies mile Durkheims
The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1995/1912) is that human social groups
are emergent causal agents, possessing characteristics independent of the
individuals who make it up. The emergent characteristics of the social group
include moral authority, intellectual refinement, emotional amplification, and
a will distinct from that of the individuals that compose it. He argues that ref-
erences to the divine in such social groups actually refer to this emergent social
agency, which is why religious beliefs are in some manner true. Durkheim
argues that in religious gatherings, individuals focus on some thing or idea
(called a totem) that acts as a sign of the divine, and the groups shared focus on
this object or idea actually creates the emergent social agent, and reinforces its
emergent characteristics. Durkheim ultimately fails to explain how it is that a
groups focus on a representative totem results in a new kind of group agency.
It is precisely the idea of a metaperformative involving encoded memory that
Durkheim needs to make his account clear. While he does an admirable job of
pushing in this theoretical direction, he fails to fully conceptualize religion as
a semantically-closed strange loop. His brilliant failure is what makes this work
so rich, influential, and worth theoretical attention.

Emergence and Cultural Sociality

Durkheim was one of the first theorists to demonstrate religion could be pro-
ductively analyzed from a systems or an emergent approach to social organi-
zation.1 For Durkheim, society is a uniquely human social accomplishment
that transcends the individual, and plays an active and even self-centered role
in the lives of the individuals who compose it. He writes,

Man is not simply an animal, plus certain qualities: He is something dif-

ferent. Human nature is the product of a recasting, so to speak, of animal

1 For an account of how Durkheim is explicitly working within an early emergence paradigm,
see Sawyer (2002).

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015|doi 10.1163/9789004293762_007

128 chapter 6 is in relationship not only with a physical milieu, but also

with a social milieu In order to live, then, he must adapt to it. Now, to
maintain itself, society often needs us to see things from a certain stand-
point and feel them in a certain way. It therefore modifies the ideas we
would be inclined to have about them, and the feelings to which we would
be inclined if we obeyed only our animal nature even to the extent of
replacing them with quite opposite feelings. Does society not go so far as
to make us see our own life as a thing of little value, while for animals life
is property par excellence? (1995, 62, italics mine).

By describing the effects of society as a relational, holistic entity transcending

individual minds, emotions, and values, he is exemplifying an emergent approach
to human sociality.
For Durkheim, a religious community is not something different from soci-
ety; rather, what is achieved in religious gatherings is society. Religious gather-
ings are a means by which people become aware of and intensify the emergent
qualities they possess as a result of sharing a language and culture. Religion is
the primary way the very abstract nature of collective thought and collective
emotions becomes salient and intensified in individuals lives. He writes,

Religion is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individu-

als imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet
intimate relations they have with it. Such is its paramount role (1995, 227).

Through religious rites and gatherings, people concentrate their collective

forces. He writes,

If society is to be able to become conscious of itself and keep the sense it

has of itself at the required intensity, it must assemble and concentrate.
This concentration brings about an uplifting of moral life that is expressed
by a set of ideal conceptions in which the new life thus awakened is
depicted (1995, 424).

In traditional human societies, the ideal conceptions that awaken the moral
life of society are the sacred concepts and symbols of religious life. However,
he also suggests that gathering around political ideals serve just as well as reli-
gious ideas to facilitate and intensify the emergent nature of sociality. One is
merely the other transfigured. Thus, there is no real difference between
Christians celebrating the principle dates of Christs lifeand a citizens meet-
ing commemorating the advent of a new moral charter or some other great event
mile Durkheim And The Emergence Of Meaningful Social Agency 129

of national life (1995, 429). Non-religious festivals and religious ceremonies

have exactly the same end to bring individuals together, to put the masses
into motion, and thus induce a state of effervescence (1995, 3867). And there
is no difference in the type of deference people show to political and religious
leaders, or in the actual moral authority they possess.
Durkheim, though boldly and creatively investigating religion from an
emergence perspective he almost single-handedly forges, inappropriately con-
flates religious sociality and political sociality. From the perspective of his
theory, communities defined by statements such as all men are created equal,
and the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles
are not distinguishable from communities defined by statements such as The
Tao that can be named is not the true Tao and Hear, O Israel, the Lord our
God, the Lord is One. This theoretical failure in Durkheims account of religion
leads directly to a legacy in the sociological analysis of religion that cannot
distinguish the Tao from Democracy, the Bhagavad Gita from the Constitution.2
To appreciate both Durkheims revolutionary insight and its failures, we
need to look at his proposal in a little more detail. Durkheim simultaneously
affirms that religion is about something greater than the individual, and denies
that the something greater is a supernatural entity. The something greater is
composed of the sui generis features of human social groups.3 Collective fea-
tures arise when we share a language with others; these are responsible for the
higher half of humanitys dual nature, the other half coming from our biology.
These collective features he calls society. He argues that society, as a commu-
nity of interpretation,4 is where thought occurs independent of the individ-
ual. The thoughts that individuals from every generation contribute to cultural
life are sifted and selected from; the most persistent become the ground for the
next generations enculturation. The atom of public thought, the concept,5 is
not the work of individuals in isolation, but is fashioned by a single intellect in
which all others meet (1995, 4345). Thus, concepts are representations that
correspond to the way in which the special being that is society thinks about
the things of its own experience (1995, 436). Societys collective representa-
tions add to what our personal experience can teach us all the wisdom and

2 See Cassell (2012, Chap. 1), for an account of this.

3 Sawyer (2002) has pointed out that Durkheims use of this term is technical; it marks his
approach as specifically influenced by early emergence theorists.
4 This is Josiah Royces term (1968/1912), not Durkheims, but it effectively captures Durkheims
idea. I will continue to use this term interchangeably with society, since it captures what
I think Durkheim is after effectively.
5 More specifically, Durkheim means the symbolically-represented concept.
130 chapter 6

science that the collectivity has amassed over centuries (1995, 437). Durkheim
pictures human culture as demonstrating a top-down influence on individual
thought; an aggregate social dynamic transcends the mental life of any indi-
vidual participant, and that dynamic is governed by reproduction (memory),
variation, and selection.
However, it is not just collective mental life that emerges in sociality through
gathering together. Collective moral life is established when we gather. He writes,

[Religious forces are] moral powers, since they are made entirely from
the impressions that moral collectivity as a moral being makes on other
moral beings, the individuals. Such moral powers do not express the
manner in which natural things affect our senses but the manner in
which the collective consciousness affects individual consciousnesses
(1995, 224).

In defense of this claim, he points to the curious moral authority that shared
opinions have; even if we privately disagree with them, they have a moral force
that compels us to agree with them publicly. He additionally argues that social
gatherings produce collective and efficacious emotions, which exhibit them-
selves in outlandish forms of behavior, such as intense and rhythmic dancing,
and psychological disassociation. These collective emotions what he calls
collective effervescence become associated with a groups sacred objects,
which become a sign of those feelings. These objects get treated as if it was the
reality causing those feelings. So society, besides producing social thought
and moral sensitivity, produces the feeling that the collectivity inspires in its
members, objectified and magnified (1995, 230). Finally, gathering together in
religious and/or political assemblies produces a collective will. Durkheim
speaks of the unexpected and shocking group decisions made during the
French Revolution as societys behavioral surplus.
Durkheim is clear that relations between individuals is where and how
socially emergent features reveal themselves. He argues that individuals and
society are mutually cofacilitative their relationship moves in a circle. The
individual gets the best part of himself from society, and society exists and
lives only in and through individuals. Note that society is not a mere physical
aggregation of members of a biological species; rather, it is what exists as a
result of the shared public space of symbolic culture; it has a reality only in its
place in human consciousnesses (1995, 351). If the idea of society is extin-
guished in minds, Durkheim argues, society dies. It is this culturally supported
kind of sociality that is the emergent agency; biological influences on sociality,
real as they may be, do not recognize, celebrate, engage and transform the self.
mile Durkheim And The Emergence Of Meaningful Social Agency 131

These arguments press Durkheim to use fairly exalted language concerning

the ontological status of societies, analogous to a human person. Societies have
an inner life and a collective soul. They are a sui generis synthesis of individ-
ual consciousnesses, and are not the result of communication between indi-
viduals, but rather result when a plurality of individual consciousnesses enter
into communion and are fused into a common consciousness. Society repre-
sents a subject that encompasses every individual subject, a consciousness
of consciousnesses, that is the highest form of psychic life. It is a supraindi-
vidual reality that surpasses the individual, though it exists in and through the
individual. He argues that a new avenue for explaining human mental life
opens as soon as we recognize that above the individual there is society, and
that society is a system of active forces not a nominal being, and not a cre-
ation of the mind.6 This vision of a superconsciousness composed of aggre-
gates of individuals sharing a symbolic world is, for Durkheim, what religious
people mean by God. For Durkheim, it is a worthy replacement for Platonized,
supernatural versions of divine beings.

Why Religion?

Durkheim argues that everyday, normal human thought is so replete with soci-
etys collective representations that they usually go unnoticed. And because
societys profound effects are emergent (i.e. relational) effects, they have no
obvious source. This means that when the effects of society are noticed, they
can easily be mistaken for something supernatural. He writes,

Because social pressure makes itself felt through mental channels, it was
bound to give man the idea that outside him there are one or several
powers, moral yet mighty, to which he is subjectThe mythological inter-
pretations would doubtless not have been born if man could easily see
that those influences upon him come from society. But the ordinary
observer cannot see where the influence of society comes fromSo long
as scientific analyses has not yet taught him, man is well aware that he is
acted upon but not by whom. Thus he had to build out of nothing the
idea of those powers with which he feels connected (1995, 211).

The idea of gods and other divine causes is a natural result of individuals being
causally influenced by emergent social effects, but not being aware of their

6 Durkheim (1995, 267, 426, 160, 443, 445, 4478).

132 chapter 6

source. Becoming aware of these emergent effects is critical to explaining and

understanding religion.
Durkheim thinks that religious gatherings have a multiplicative effect on
the potency of societys relational effects; when we gather, the thoughts and
feelings society possesses strongly present themselves to individual conscious-
ness. This effect accordingly dissipates when individuals disperse, and we
become gradually dominated by the lower half of our dual nature, animality.
Gathering together is the ground of the emergent social mind, and the effects
of this gathering can be almost magical.
Durkheim further argues that religious gathering actually constitutes the
emergence of society. When we examine how he thinks this occurs, we can see
a problem Durkheim doesnt quite resolve. Durkheim explains his theory by
analyzing the accounts of anthropologists who studied the social organization
and religious life of Australian Aborigines. He identifies the totem as that aspect
of Aboriginal culture that is most important, and analyzes its meaning for these
groups. A large part of Aboriginal society is not determined by family lineage,
but by the fact that clans of individuals bear the same name, and are identified
with a plant or animal, which is their totem. Totemism, according to Durkheim,
is not a religion of certain animals or plants, but rather the religion of a kind of
anonymous and impersonal force that is identifiable in each of these beings
but identical to none of them. Totems are the tangible form in which an intan-
gible substance linking many things is represented in the imagination; that
substance or energy is the real object of the cult. Besides representing this anon-
ymous, impersonal force, the totem also represents the clan. Durkheim, com-
bining these two ideas, says the totem is that which brings the clans collective
mind to simultaneous collective attention. Because of its simplicity, the totem
serves as the visible body of that from which the benevolent and powerful
actions of sociality seem to emanate, and the essence of totemism is the collec-
tive and emergent force of the clans sociality, imagined through the totem.
What functional role does Durkheim say the totem plays? Wouldnt gather-
ing together without the totem produce the same emergent effects that define
society? Or, is the totem somehow critical for the emergence of society as an
active agent? What exactly is Durkheims argument? He describes at least 4
different ways a totem might function to either produce or represent the emer-
gent social effects he describes. Unfortunately, he only clearly differentiates
the most mundane possible function of a totem from other possible functions.
He notes the mundane use of an emblem to represent a groups identity, in
order to compare it with a sacred totem. Tattoos, mascots, and emblems can
be useful as a rallying point by expressing the social unit tangibly, [making]
the unit itself more tangible to all (1995, 231). That is, individuals sharing a
mile Durkheim And The Emergence Of Meaningful Social Agency 133

mascot are reminded that they are a group by that mascot. But this, for
Durkheim, requires no argument; it is common knowledge. Durkheims com-
ment that this mundane function of a totem requires no argument is impor-
tant; it signals that what he tries to articulate over the next forty pages about a
groups sacred object is different; identification with a sacred object goes
beyond merely signifying a sociality already present. When Australians gather
in the name of their totem; the emergent agent that is society is not merely
referred to by their totem, but constituted somehow by it.
Durkheim discusses other possible ways a totem could be connected to
human sociality. A totem could come to closely represent and even become
interchangeable with the fond memories of the emotional effervescence of
social gatherings, by its association with those gatherings. Durkheim describes
a soldier who dies trying to save the flag of the country he loves as an example
of this function of a totem. The function of the totem becomes one of several
explanations he invokes to explain a totems efficacy in producing society.
Another function of a totem might be to preside over harmonized group
movements directed towards it; in this way, it could be seen as being constitu-
tive of social unity by being the passive center of attentional focus and corpo-
rate activity. He writes,

The emblem is not only a convenient method of clarifying the awareness

the society has of itself; it serves to create and is a constitutive element
of that awareness For the communication that is opening up between
[individual consciousnesses] to end in a communion that is, in a fusion
of all the individual feelings into a common one the signs that express
those feelings must come together in one single resultant. The appear-
ance of this resultant notifies individuals that they are in unison and
brings home to them the moral unity. It is by shouting the same cry, say-
ing the same words, and performing the same action in regard to the
same object that they arrive at and experience agreement (1995, 2312).

My reading of Durkheim is that this position is the one he most consistently

defaults to in terms of his theoretical explanation for the totems efficacy.
Importantly, this explanation differs from his description of a totems function
in real religious communities, and it is this gap between his theoretical expla-
nation and the function of a totem he actually describes that is the source of
Durkheims failure to distinguish theoretically political and religious group
What he actually describes concerning a totems function in religious groups
is embedded in his characterization of the sacred, and in the many examples
134 chapter 6

he gives as to how the sacred functions in a religious group. Durkheim charac-

terizes the sacred in terms of its radical heterogeneity from profane things;
there are different energies at play in the sacred and the profane. Sacred things
are isolated from profane things by prohibitions, and religious rites describe
how humans must conduct themselves towards sacred things.
Durkheim views majesty as the most characteristic disposition evoked by
sacred things. Believers exemplify a kind of worship with respect to the sacred.
As Wilson (2002, 227) describes Durkheims idea of the sacred, to regard some-
thing as sacred is to subordinate oneself to it, to obey its demands. In contrast,
to regard something as profane is to subordinate it to oneself to use it for ones
own purposes. Durkheim gives an example of the most sacred totem of
Australian aborigines, the churinga. He describes how it receives devotion,
and says that one can say that they worship and glorify it (1995, 121,350). The
sacred power of the totem is clearly conceived as a miraculous power, evoking
love, care, and devotion for the sign of that power:

The churinga has all sorts of miraculous qualities. By its touch, wounds
are healed, especially those resulting from circumcision; it is similarly
effective against illness; it makes the beard grow; it conveys important
powers over the totemic species, whose normal reproduction it ensures;
it gives men strength, courage, and perseverance, while depressing and
weakening their enemies The devotion they [churingas] receive further
illustrates the great value that is attached to them. They are handled with
a respect that is displayed by the solemnity of the movements. They are
cared for, oiled, rubbed, and polished; when they are carried from one
place to another, it is in the midst of ceremonies, proof that this travel is
considered an act of the very highest importance (1995, 120, 121).

Durkheim notes the attitude of worship towards totems, and he acknowledges

that it constitutes a special kind of sociality that has potent collective manifes-
tations. However, he fails to articulate why worship should be given a totem, if,
according to his theoretical account, all it does to produce social unity is to
act as the passive center of attentional focus and corporate activity, as a
swastika might have done in a Nazi rally. He also fails to note how the worship
of the totem might give it a different function in the community, when com-
pared to the effect a profane attitude would have towards emblems, tattoos,
and even abstract political principles. This means he conflates the role of an
emblem and a totem in a community. For example, Durkheim correctly argues
that religious totems transfigure the collective intelligence, feelings, and
morality of a group by proposing that the source of these things is a divine
mile Durkheim And The Emergence Of Meaningful Social Agency 135

entity. However, he also argues that once we become clear about the nature of
society as an emergent agent, we neednt obfuscate societys emergent effects
with ideas about the divine, and the worship that goes along with those ideas.
Political gatherings produce the same emergent societal effects as do religious
gatherings. He notes:

In the general enthusiasm of [the French Revolution], things that were by

nature purely secular were transformed by public opinion into sacred
things: Fatherland, Liberty, Reasonwe saw society and its fundamental
ideas becoming the object of a genuine cult directly, and without transfigu-
ration of any kind. All these facts enable us to grasp how it is possible for the
clan to awaken in its members the idea of forces existing outside them, both
dominating and supporting them in sum, religious forces (1995, 2156).

This is a critical gaffe in his argument; Durkheim has not clearly theorized the
role of the worship of sacred objects in his conception of religion. The degree
to which religion is characterized by worship of the sacred distinguishes a reli-
gious totem from a mere emblem or mascot that allows coordinated group
action, or a political principle that coordinates group mental life, and it is this
dynamic that constitutes religious sociality in a unique way.

The Problem with Durkheims Conception of Religion

Durkheims theoretical achievements are many: he offers a naturalistic expla-

nation for religion that attempts to account for the idea of the supernatural,
and in that attempt forges an unprecedented emergent theory of human soci-
ality. He argues that shared human culture gives us public and objective
thought, emotions, and morals as distinct from private and subjective thought,
emotions, and morals. He describes society as a real, emergent ontological
being or agent, possessing these capacities. And further, he begins to articu-
late the basic idea of a metaperformative (see my Ch. 2), as he tries to explain
how social performances with respect to a totem allow the totem to be viewed
as the source of that sociality.
However, Durkheims attempt at theorizing a metaperformative does not
distinguish a Nazi swastika at Nuremberg from a Torah in a Jewish synagogue
in terms of their function. Both represent a group in some manner; both act as
social memory in some way; both act as focal points for group performances
organized with respect to them. However, they can be distinguished from each
other based on whether their effects are perceived to be caused by something
136 chapter 6

other than the groups own action. The Torah does not directly represent social-
ity, but rather represents a divine agent with whom individuals are expected to
relate, even as they relate to each other.
Worship is critically tied to this idea of divine causal agency. If you cant
imagine that the totem points to an active cause bigger than the individual or
the sum of all individuals, then what it points to cant be seen as actively chang-
ing a persons psychic life, or actively coordinating sociality. For that reason,
the Swastika at a Nazi gathering presides over, but is not seen as the source of,
the coordination performed with respect to it. All the work done to coordi-
nate performance with respect to a Swastika is presumed to be done by those
doing the performing, for reasons that are manifestly social. This is not the case
with the Torah in a synagogue; it points to God, who has a covenant with Israel,
and who can be seen as existentially relevant to individuals, as well as to the
cause of the social group. Worship creates the conditions that allow both psy-
chic and social effects to be seen as coming from Yahweh.
In a similar manner, the social function of ideas of the divine can be distin-
guished from the social function of secular political ideas according to how
they facilitate worship with respect to them. Political ideas gain their social
causal efficacy from what everyone does, once they buy into the vision of soci-
ality represented by the ideas. Metaperformatives involving the divine, how-
ever, differ from this because they get their social causal efficacy not merely
from the vision of sociality they present, but from the powerful psychic experi-
ences they invite. The Christian community is constituted by individual acts of
being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for reasons of
individual meaningfulness as much as (and perhaps more than) social reasons;
the social impact of Christian belief rides in tandem with its psychic impact.
Political gatherings certainly may produce an excited confidence that a par-
ticular political ideal is shared, correct, and good. But as Daniel Dennett argues
in Breaking the Spell, the social effectiveness of belief in democracy is only as
great as each persons confidence in the commitment held by every other per-
son. When that confidence fails (as it does in situations similar to a run on the
bank), society as constituted by some secular ideal disintegrates. A sacred
divine Being or Way, on the other hand, is seen as a causal force distinct from
each individual and their relations with others. The divine invites worship
even when society has fallen apart, and does not depend upon what others do
to be considered worthy of worship. This makes the divine a magnet for indi-
viduals to connect themselves to, and indirectly, a fountain of social capital
waiting to be tapped through corporate worship. Durkheim argues this him-
self, as he explains his idea of collective effervescence. But he also claims that
political gatherings produce this same effect.
mile Durkheim And The Emergence Of Meaningful Social Agency 137

It is not possible, however, to worship secular principles like democracy and

liberty because they are so obviously not transfigured. The principles themselves
do not point to something greater than each individual, but rather point to a
way of facilitating group sociality, which is the end that is valued. They, as a
means to an end, are lesser than the end, and are adopted because they serve the
end. As Krauthammer (1990) insightfully argued after the fall of the Soviet Bloc,

Thedeeply disillusioning truth about democracy is that it is designed at

its core to be spiritually emptythe defining proposition of liberal
democracy is that it mandates means (elections, parliaments, markets)
but not ends. Democracy leaves the goals of life entirely up to the indi-
vidual. Where the totalitarian state decrees lifes purposes Dengs Four
Modernizations, Castros Rectification Campaigns, and the generic
exhortation about building socialism democracy leaves a naked pub-
lic square.

Tumarkin (1983) presents a compelling case demonstrating what happens

when worship is wrongly extended to secular purposes, such as the totalitar-
ian ones listed by Krauthammer. She argues that the people of the Soviet Union
were forced to submit to what can only be described as a forbidden experi-
ment by those behind the Cult of Lenin. She thoroughly characterizes how
Lenins political ideals and person were presented to the Soviet people as
something to worship, not as something to assess. His political ideals and per-
son were intentionally presented as sacred in the same way religious commu-
nities present divine beings as sacred, with disastrous and sometimes even
hilarious results. Secular principles produce social unity differently than do
sacred objects.
The role of worship is so important, and so central to Durkheims theoretical
error, that at the risk of repeating myself, I want to state it again. Secular prin-
ciples are ideas about sociality that serve the end of social unity; they are not
greater than the end result of creating effective groups. Nor are they something
that can be perceived as acting by their own power, by their own causal effec-
tiveness. People realize their efficacy comes from shared faith in them. In con-
trast, the divine invites worship for reasons other than social outcomes; for
example, worship brings about experiences such as decentering, which is usu-
ally viewed as resulting from the causal efficacy of the divine. Worship of the
divine then indirectly brings about the outcome of social unity. It is precisely
the fact that sacred objects and ideas are transfigured because they represent
a divine cause that allows this; transfigurement and worship go hand-in-hand.
In effect, swastikas and political principles act as indexes of sociality, taken up
138 chapter 6

straightforwardly for their usefulness in creating society; sacred objects and

ideas do not function in this way. They are encoded sources of sociality, func-
tioning indirectly to that end. They indirectly produce something that is not
what their fundamental nature is posited to be. As Rappaport says it, there is
always excess or surplus to the content of religious sources of sociality as
compared to secular sources (1971a; 1971b).
Recall that in a strange loop, the symbolic terms of a system store in encoded
form the dynamics of that very system. Hofstadter describes the dual role
played by the same mathematical string in his beloved Gdel Incompleteness
Theorem: the string can be data to be manipulated, and, when translated into a
new form, can be a set of constraints on mathematical reasoning, which is then
used to manipulate and reproduce that very string viewed as data. He argues
this logic explains the relationship of biological processes to their own dna, and
human persons to their own linguistic conceptions of themselves. In a similar
way, religious ideas and sacred objects, in their inert form as data, are repro-
duced socially as a result of being translated into their potent form via worship,
producing psychic experiences tied to a particularly intense form of spiritual-
ized sociality, such as we saw in the Haitian voodoo svis in Ch. 2. They are
reproduced as a result of this potency. I argue this is what Durkheim is aiming
towards in the Elementary Forms, but fails to fully theorize.
Durkheim is not able to distinguish religious worship from political gather-
ings because he doesnt thematize the social effects of worship, despite the fact
that he explicitly wants to distinguish an emblem or mascot from a sacred
object. His theoretical characterization of the role sacred objects play for the
community ends up being the same as his characterization of the role political
ideals play. He is able to conflate a religious symbol with a political symbol,
thinking they perform the same task. It is transfigurement the lack of direct
reference to sociality that leverages encoded representation and the self-
reproduction of the religious community.
We can see this clearly in an example. Citizens of the United States can talk
about Uncle Sam as if he existed, but they know that he is an emblem for citi-
zens of the United States; the meaning of the phrase Uncle Sam is merely a
replacement for the community. There is no potent form for interpreting Uncle
Sam, only an inert form. Uncle Sam is not a transfigured, encoded placeholder
which is translated into meaningful sociality through mutual submission to him
as something greater than each individual who shares in his worship. In the lan-
guage of Rocha & Hordijks criteria for semantic closure,Uncle Sam is not infor-
mation about sociality encoded symbolically that can be accessed and utilized
without reference to its (social) content. The meaning of Uncle Sam is exhausted by
direct, social content. In a nutshell, Durkheim confuses the indexical use of an
mile Durkheim And The Emergence Of Meaningful Social Agency 139

emblem of sociality, with the symbolic use of an emblem for sociality. As we have
seen, representation in the form of memory can have iconic, indexical, and sym-
bolic varieties. To note that political and religious content are both exemplifica-
tions of memory a general category is not to say that they function for the
group in the same way.
These considerations suggest secular societys emergent effects may not
deserve the exalted ontological and phenomenological language Durkheim offers
on their behalf. Secular principles have a very different effect on both individual
psychic experiences and social organization than do sacred objects. Haitian expe-
rience of the lwa seems a much better fit to Durkheims characterizations than
does the experience of democracy, or a shared commitment to a particular consti-
tution. To the degree that the religious community is organized in the manner of
a semantically-closed strange loop, it reflects Durkheims intuitions about the
emergent nature of society much better than secular society does. Some of his
characterizations such as the collective intelligence that results from the cul-
tural selection of ideas seem on the mark for understanding any form of human
society, not just religious sociality. However, if the distinctions Ive made dis-
tinguish a religious community from political society, the first but not the second
may represent a consciousness of consciousnesses, a supraindividual subject
of active forces compelling us to thinks its thoughts and feels its feelings.

Durkheim and Emergent Meaning

To summarize Durkheims theory of religion, he proposes three important

ideas relevant to emergent sociality. (1) When an emblem of a group is also an
object of its worship, it (somehow) produces an emergent social reality, what
Durkheim calls society. Society is strengthened every time the group gathers
together with its totem. (2) Society impacts everyone participating in it by pro-
ducing elevated emotional, moral, mental, and behavioral content. The collec-
tive effervescence of this community is associated with the totem, which acts
as a reminder of the experience outside of collective gatherings. The emergent
effects of society are what suggest the idea of the divine causal powers supe-
rior to the individual. This is the truth of religion. (3) The fact that societies
traditionally maintain themselves by using transfigured sacred objects like
totems and other religious ideas and objects in their gatherings (e.g. the
Christian Eucharist) is incidental to the emergent realities taking place in such
gatherings. Any gathering with a focus on collective social ideals or symbols,
such as those that occurred during the French Revolution or Nazi Germany,
will do.
140 chapter 6

I suggest, in response, that he doesnt correctly conceptualize the tangled

causal dynamics connecting worship, transfigured totems, individual psycho-
logical experiences, and sociality. His description of religion in (1) includes wor-
ship as a critical part, but worship is not addressed in his theory in (3). The
emergent effects he points to in (2) are real; however, they do not reach the
exalted phenomenological and ontological status he gives them in secular
forms of social organization. If that is to happen (if it is to happen at all), it
requires that the organization of the community be a strange loop, where soci-
ality is encoded in symbolic tokens that facilitate their own reproduction by
creating a type of sociality that values those tokens for reasons other than their
social import. Worship of the divine is critical for this to happen.
The question that is left to be explored in the next chapter is specifically the
claim in (2): does participation in a religious community involve participation
in something greater than ones self, as Durkheim claims, which is responsible
for the idea of majesty? Is this something greater the source of the elevated
meaningfulness, and subjective experience of enlivening, which religious peo-
ple describe?
chapter 7

Varieties of Religious Meaning

As we begin to explore the implications of an emergent theory of religion, it

becomes important to highlight the key moves in the account I have given.
Perhaps the critical piece for understanding religion is understanding the role
Ultimate Sacred Postulates play to support metaperformativity, inviting unique
forms of experience that indirectly contribute to a robust and reproductive
type of sociality. usps function specifically to reference something not there, to
point to something not present in Dominant Symbols. In the language of theol-
ogy, the divine is characterized by both apophatic negative theology (usps are
not like this, and not like that) and kataphatic positive theology (Dominant
Symbols are like this, and are like that). And just as infinity in the denomina-
tor of any fraction effectively reduces the fraction to zero, the absence created
by Ultimate Sacred Postulates casts a profoundly relativizing shadow over the
Dominant Symbols that most helpfully describe the divine. The divine in itself
is postulated to exist in ways impossible for us to know through normal experi-
ence, and grounds a form of sociality that can adapt to an almost infinite range
of cultural and social conditions. Thus, the most important entailments of the
way the divine is conceptualized result not from what the divine is about, but
from what it is not about, its implied surplus. The specified absence of divine
concepts invites decentering religious experience, and creates the mutually
self-supporting connection between individual and group narratives.
If the divine cannot be directly experienced by the senses, by definition,
what does the individual gain by making it central to their lives? What value
does religious participation offer individuals, which makes it attractive? In this
chapter, I will discuss different ways religion is meaningful, exploring the value
that it creates. What they have in common is that the value of religion comes
from positing the divine as true, which leverages something valuable to indi-
viduals, justifying the idea that divine beliefs are true. The more metaphysi-
cally daring possibilities will be suggested as the chapter progresses, along with
a discussion of the assumptions that such possibilities imply.

Religion Offers Therapeutic Truth

Perhaps the most common suggestion as to why religious participation is

meaningful is that it mediates a kind of truth that is in some way healing. This

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142 chapter 7

can mean physically healing, which might have measurable genetic reproduc-
tive benefits, or it might mean psychically and socially healing, with perhaps
no (direct) reproductive benefit, but which causes religion to be existentially
valued and its memes reproduced.

Hypnosis, the Placebo Effect, and Participation in Belief States

McClenon (1997; 2001) has postulated that hypnotic suggestions embedded
within certain forms of religious rituals may have important therapeutic heal-
ing effects, such as reducing pain, enhancing the normal course of physical
healing, controlling blood loss, facilitating childbirth, and alleviating psycho-
logical disorders. He suggests that religious ritual mediating hypnotic sugges-
tions relevant to physical healing may have co-evolved with the biological
genotype connected to hypnotizability, a trait correlated with frequency of
anomalous, religious experiences. The co-evolution of hypnotizability and
religious ritual occurred as individuals physically benefitting from religious
practices gained a reproductive advantage over those that did not. He suggests
that all religions have some deep relationship with physical healing, and this is
due to this robust hypnotic trait.
Dennett (2006), in his account of the origins of religion, gives tentative sup-
port to such a claim, suggesting that if anything could be considered an evolved
god center in the brain, it would be something like a hypnotizability-enabler.
This could have acted as a kind of health insurance for those who were sus-
ceptible to shamanic healing techniques. Dennett ties this feature with the
well-known placebo effect, where belief that one is getting an effective cure
for certain physical ailments causes cures at a higher rate than those who get
no false encouragement.
The claim that belief in the divine can be physically healing through its tie
to hypnosis is seemingly implied by what Rappaport has already pointed out
with respect to metaperformativity. Just as decentering is invited by metaper-
formativity, so is hypnotic induction. In religious ritual, a profound, powerful
causal agent of some kind either personal or impersonal is postulated to
exist, and at least publicly accepted by those participating in the ritual. Further,
through ritual participation, individuals have already entered into a passive
acknowledgement of the authority of such an agent one of the key implied
effects of metaperformativity. Certainly this is related to the common hypnotic
induction technique of an authoritative person getting a subject to enter into
conscious or unconscious agreement and submission to the hypnotizer. I sug-
gest that the broader term belief states (rather than hypnotic states) be used
to identify the impact of psychic outcome of metaperformativity on the anom-
alous experiences individuals have through decentering and hypnosis.
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 143

Since healing rituals are an important part of many if not most religious
traditions, this suggests that one of the meaningful aspects of religious partici-
pation is the physical therapy that it provides. By being linked to a divine Being
or Way that is powerful, creative, and the source of the order of society, indi-
viduals may believe their physical health is tied to their relationship to such a
Being or Way, and actually experience healing in certain circumstances as a
direct result of that belief.
Beyond physical healing, others have noted that psychological health is con-
nected with ritual participation.1 Strong religious faith is tied to self-reports of
higher levels of life satisfaction, personal happiness, and an increased ability to
deal psychologically with traumatic life events. Religious service attendance is
strongly linked with reduced mortality risks in the incidence of cardiovascular
diseases, and even increased life expectancy. Dennett, when surveying the
findings on religion and psychological health, believes that growing evidence
suggests religions succeed remarkably well at improving participants health
and morale, though he believes further research is necessary before making a
definitive conclusion.

Religion Resolves Unresolvables

If religiosity is tied to the reduction of distress and anxiety, it might be due to
the way it creates and sustains coherence between ones beliefs and values, on
the one hand, and the way life including social life is actually experienced,
on the other, leaving one with a sense the world is ordered, controlled, and
understandable, even when it is not (Inzlicht, Tullett, and Good 2011). Religion
provides a cosmic blueprint that inspires hope, and thus buffers people from
uncertainty and ineliminable conflict. Besides physical and psychological
healing, then, ritual and myth offer therapeutic existential truth to be appropri-
ated by participants.
Anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Maurice Bloch
have each suggested that one of the most important ways religion accom-
plishes this is it offers a location where ineliminable conflicts in human experi-
ence can be placed and mystically resolved, the solution then appropriated to
ease existential pain and social strife. Geertz, for example, tells a story from
Bali exemplifying how sacred symbols unite the incoherent. In Bali, religious
plays involve puppets as characters embodying different Balinese virtues that
cannot coexist simultaneously, such as compassion, the single-minded will to
action, and justice. The dilemmas the plays set up are resolved with mystical
insight, coming from a realm in which ineliminable conflicts are posited as

1 For a recent summary, see Inzlicht, Tullett, and Good (2011).

144 chapter 7

being in harmony. The divine offers a genuine comprehension of the realities

of the human situation, a true perception of the ultimate [harmonious unifica-
tion of it], and with the divine comes the ability to combinecompassion,
will to action, andjustice (1973, 139). Turner (1969) and Bloch (1992) give
other examples of this, and make similar arguments. I suggest this is another
outcome of the specified absence created by ritual and myth. Myth and ritual
posit non-physical sources of effective agency, characterized by Dominant
Symbols, postulated to ground both society and nature (Boudewijnse 1990).
According to Rappaport, Dominant Symbols represent the union of psychic,
social, natural, and cosmic processes, which life tends to pull apart.
Human dilemmas can be safely given to an implied causal agent character-
ized by the unifying ideas found in Dominant Symbols, and posited as resolved.
Religious communities become a place from which therapeutic truth both
individually and corporately can be potentially mediated. A recent example
of this can be seen in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
which was commissioned after the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa.
Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this committee allowed victims and
perpetrators of apartheid alike to give their testimonies about abuses that were
committed under apartheid. Widely hailed as a success, it was an important
aspect of the transition from a racist regime to a stable democracy, where
restorative justice was the model instead of retributive justice. A focus on
forgiveness was central to the committees approach. The theological aspects
of this committees work was best seen in Chairman Desmond Tutus interpre-
tation and implementation of it:

Where a jurist would have been logical, [Tutu] has not hesitated to be
theological. He has sensed when to lead audience members in a hymn to
help a victim recover composure and when to call them all to prayer.
While somehave criticized the God-language he has used, Tutu knows
that the nation is seeking a deeper healing than mere law can provide.

The Christian author of this article does not hesitate to invoke Christian
Dominant Symbols to explain the power of Tutus approach: Perhaps this
unique exercise points beyond conventional retribution into a realm where jus-
tice and mercy coalesce. It is an area more consistent with Calvary than the court-
room (Storey 1997).2 This is an example of the therapeutic use of the specific
religious conceptual blend Mark Turner wrote about, which I recounted in
Ch. 4, involving an innocent man paying for societys crimes.

2 An in-depth interview with Tutu on the theological implications of the committees approach
can be seen at
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 145

I suggest that this kind of societal healing, which explicitly calls on theologi-
cal concepts and divine Beings and Ways, is similar to the healing that
McNamara proposes occurs in decentering. Decentering in McNamaras sense
resolves tensions existing in individuals as they negotiate their individual
problems and failings; I am drawing attention here to societal and cosmic
problems, such as the problem of death and the incompatibility of the demands
of justice and mercy. It is possible that the decentering experiences found in
group ritual attend to ineliminable societal tensions and problems, even as pri-
vate decentering experiences attend to individual tensions and problems. In
both cases, discursive thought cannot resolve the dilemmas, since they are
largely crises produced by the logical incompatibilities of discursive thought.
This makes non-discursive, mystical resolution an important aspect of human
religious symbolism; as Murphy (1979) notes, discursive ambiguity is an essen-
tial part of the union of oppositional dyads.
That belief in the divine offers hope, contributing resources to individual
and social well-being, would certainly represent one way that individuals
would find religious community participation meaningful. This therapeutic
function of myth and ritual may represent a cultural adaptation, discovered by
the variation and selection of religious community beliefs over time.

Creating Better Selves

When Daniel Dennett began writing his book meant to challenge the unques-
tioned status religion has in modern life, he did what all of us should do when
taking on a topic we want to challenge: he listened. He interviewed people for
whom religion played an important role in their life. He writes,

These occasions were often moving, to say the least, and I learned a lot.
Some people had endured hardships that I could not readily imagine
myself surviving, and some had found in their religion the strength to
make, and hold fast to, decisions that were nothing short of heroic. Less
dramatic, but even more impressive in retrospect, were the people of
modest talent and accomplishment who were, in one way or another,
simply much better people than one might expect them to be; it wasnt just
that their lives had meaning to them though this was certainly true but
that they were actually making the world better by their efforts, inspired
by their conviction that their lives were not their own to dispose of as
they chose.
[F]or day-in, day-out lifelong bracing, there is probably nothing so
effective as religion: it makes powerful and talented people more humble
and patient, it makes average people rise above themselves, it provides
sturdy support for many people who desperately need help staying away
146 chapter 7

from drink or drugs or crime. People who would otherwise be self-

absorbed or shallow or crude or simply quitters are often ennobled by
their religion, given a perspective on life that helps make them the hard
decisions that we all would be proud to make (2006, 545).

Of course, Dennett is aware of how religion can be the source of much suffer-
ing in the world, this fact being one of the reasons we must break the spell
the spell of unquestioning defense and protection of religion. But he points to
something that is often pointed to by religious folks themselves: that their reli-
gion has made them more selfless people, more spiritual people. Dennett ana-
lyzes what the term spiritual means, suggesting it points to one of the best
secrets of life: let your self go (2006, 303). When this is done, he continues,
mundane preoccupations shrink to proper size, becoming less important. A
person who has forgotten him or herself can stay centered and engaged; the
hard choices will be easier, the right words will come as needed, and they will
be a better person.
Dennett claims that being spiritual has nothing to do with believing in doc-
trines or with the supernatural. However, I want to suggest that while it is pos-
sible for a non-religious person to be spiritual in his sense, and likewise possible
for a religious person to fail to be, there is something that religious participa-
tion does to invite such ways of being in the world. By implying acceptance of
the authority of a posited nonmaterial, hidden agency, the individuals life is
necessarily relativized and reoriented towards something that is posited to be
greater than him or her. In order to find and experience the divine, one must in
some way flee the mundane and suppress normal behaviors and ego-narra-
tives; mundane need-fulfillment cannot be the source of such spirituality.
Durkheim discusses this through his idea of negative cult. He characterizes
negative cult as a series of abstinences regarding normal experience; certain
religious practices move normal biological and cultural activity away from the
norm in some way.3 Disinterestedness in the normal way of everyday life unex-
pectedly exerts a positive influence on the religious life; by sacrificing some of
our profane interests we create for [the gods] the place in lifewhich they are
entitled (1995, 320). For Durkheim, suppression of the profane is a precondi-
tion to accessing the positive sacred. This movement away from normal ego-
needs, I suggest, is characteristic of the emergent dynamics that link
self-narratives and group narratives through the mediation of a spiritual map,

3 While Durkheim had in mind ascetic practices, the basic idea here can be extended to mean
a practiced overindulgence as much as asceticism. What is important is that normal forms of
the activity are suppressed, not that some activity as such is suppressed.
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 147

and is a constant spur towards spirituality as Dennett describes it. Relativizing

ones own wants and needs through submission to something posited as
greater is the source of most of the qualities Dennett lauds, and correctly
associates with religion. This, too, is an important source of the meaningful-
ness of religion.

Emergent Emotions
Deacon and Cashman (2009), in a paper that Shanafelt (2011) says effectively
synergizes different aspects of anthropology evolutionary, biological, linguis-
tic, humanistic, and even that of transcendent personal experience, describe
how religious mythological language goes beyond merely identifying routine
emotions and experiences to be experienced in ritual. It helps create the con-
ditions for truly novel blends of emotions, which are profoundly meaningful
to human beings, and central to such inspiring religious experiences as awe,
reverence, and feelings of self-transcendence. These, they suggest, represent
types of experiences that are simply not possible in normal or mundane
A stunning example of what Deacon and Cashman mean by emergent emo-
tions can be seen in a demonstration performed by psychological illusionist
Derren Brown, for the television show Derren Brown: Fear and Faith, pt. 2,
which aired on the Channel 4 Television Corporation in Great Britain on
November 16, 2012.4 In that show, Mr. Brown, whose goal is to demonstrate that
God is not required to explain the kinds of profound religious experiences that
Christians have attributed to divine intervention, utilized his skills in psycho-
logical manipulation to give an atheist a religious experience, without ever
invoking the word God.5 The basic setup for the experience could have been
taken directly from Deacon and Cashmans paper, as Christian Dominant
Symbols, such as being cherished by a father figure, being open to new experi-
ences, and the feeling of being connected to a master plan, were skillfully
blended together in his conversation with her. Through a technique of psycho-
logical anchoring, they were brought to sudden consciousness for her in
a powerful experience that was unlike any other experience the subject ever

4 uk viewers can see this episode on the Channel 4 website at

programmes/derren-brown-the-specials/4od#3451478. Non-uk viewers can see the episode
on YouTube, at
5 Although it must be noted that he relied heavily on the implicit Christian categories his
subject, an educated woman in England, carried with her as background knowledge. The experi-
ence she was to have took place in a church, surrounded by Christian symbols, with promptings
that certainly suggested that many people in history have believed in the Christian God.
148 chapter 7

had deeply meaningful, and potentially life-changing. Her immediate com-

ment about the experience, in the midst of obvious overpowering emotion, was
Why couldnt I have had this all my life, and her description to Mr. Brown a few
seconds later was The love I get from my family and my friendsI just felt that
times a thousand. Her follow-up comments a few days later were, It just felt as
though all the love in the world had been thrown at me, and it was completely
overwhelmingIt felt as though that love had always been available to me, but
I had kind of pushed it away or mistreated it somehow by not letting it into my
life. Its as if my spectrum has just been broadenedand that high end has just
been extended. Mr. Brown at that point reminded her of something she had
told him after filming: This has to be something supernatural.6
Interestingly, once it was explained to the subject how the experience had
been manipulated, her response was, It has added a kind of artificial element
to it for me now. Apparently, what had made it meaningful was not merely the
experience itself which, after all, could theoretically be reproduced through
the taking of certain drugs but the idea that the experience was a window or
opening into the way life was meant to be experienced. It was the belief that
the emergent emotions had a divine cause that was really the valuable aspect
of the experience. I will revisit this later in this chapter; for now, however, it is
sufficient to note that the idea of emergent emotions is certainly a potential
outcome of myth, as Deacon and Cashman suggest. Further, belief states
whether manipulated by a skilled mentalist or through the psychic implica-
tions of metaperformativity are certainly relevant to the kinds of emergent
emotions and religious experiences that people have.

Social Orientation

Meaningfulness does not just come from therapeutic healing experiences and
new emotional blends; it also comes from the way religious ritual profoundly
connects the cosmos and the social order to the individual. Albert Einstein, in
a defense of the kind of religion he felt was a necessary and important part of
human life, described it as providing the highest moral and ethical values,
which act as ends for human technical knowledge:

6 Mr. Brown has assured me that the young woman in the show was not an actor; that her
emotional experience was not an act or scripted in any way, and that he is reasonably certain
that among some suggestible people, the manipulation and creation of emergent emotions
in this way is repeatable (personal communication, 2014).
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 149

Objective [scientific] knowledge provides us with powerful instruments

for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the
longing to reach it must come from another source To make clear these
fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional
life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function
which religion has to perform in the social life of manthey exist in a
healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and
aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as
something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their
Quoted in wilber 2001, 108

Einstein seems to be suggesting three things in this provocative passage. First,

he suggests that individuals without society would simply not have clear ends,
goals, and values at which to aim. As Durkheim would say, these ends, goals
and values are collective ends, goals and values; apart from the emergent
effects of sharing a language, societal values and ends such as All men are cre-
ated equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, sim-
ply wouldnt exist. They are not features of biological hominids, but rather of
language-sharers who have entered into the project of constructing a symbolic
model for the natural, psychic, and social worlds.
Second, Einstein suggests that rational, scientific knowledge would not have
ends and values without religion. Religious communities are living traditions
that distill, preserve, and rank values, arranging them in a hierarchy that gives
individuals and all the specific subsystems of society (such as the scientific enter-
prise) the priorities that give them meaning and that guide their operation.
Finally, Einstein suggests that religion serves to connect such ends and val-
ues with the emotional life of people. Anthropologist Brian Hayden (2003) has
argued compellingly that religious ritual (and what McNamara calls decenter-
ing) provided the emotional and ecstatic bonds in our deep past necessary to
connect unrelated individuals to each other, and commit them to shared ide-
als. The emotions and intensity of religion can be far stronger than logic, rea-
son, or science, which might not have even developed without religion
providing the glue to create society.
Religious studies scholar Wesley Wildman (2011) has argued that one of
the important meaningful experiences that religious communities mediate is
social orientation, which people feel is of vital importance to their lives.
Orienting experiences are critical for the stability of social life, representing
the way our highest ethical and evaluative commitments are embedded in our
social dynamics, which themselves are embedded in the character of the
150 chapter 7

cosmos. As Rappaport writes, the social orientation provided by ritual and

myth establishes a unity or integrity of understanding that may seem highly
meaningful to those grasping it and that may be tenuous or lacking in society
poor in ritual (1999, 276).

Emergent Selves needing Orientation

I have mentioned in previous chapters (Ch.s 1 and 5) that the fact that a human
person is already an emergent phenomenon might be an important clue to
understanding the meaningfulness of religion. I want to expand upon this
here. Several authors (Hofstadter 2007; Deacon 1997; Kerby 1991) have argued
that the human person, as a narratively-organized center of subjectivity, repre-
sents an emergent dynamic. If this is so, it has important but under-consid-
ered implications for the meaningfulness of religion. Human subjectivity, in
its relationship to the body associated with it, is difficult to characterize. Our
capacity to recognize our subjective experience as orthogonal to, but somehow
profoundly connected with, our objective bodies has been the source of pro-
found questions concerning our place in the universe. What could possibly be
invoked to explain this? Are we the more whose identity derives from the
less, as scientific accounts would suggest? If so, why does a subjective con-
scious unity suddenly pop into existence from a material, objective base?
How could our growing knowledge of the base ever give us a satisfying sense of
our place in the universe? Or are we the less that is derived from the more,
sparks of divinity somehow associated with the lower aspects of creation,
which religious narratives tend to affirm?
I suggest the real issue of human nature relevant to driving religious inter-
ests is not our evolved overactive agency detection algorithm, nor our sweet
tooth for narratives involving minimally counter-intuitive objects, as some
evolutionary psychologists suggest,7 but rather our awareness of our own sub-
jectivity, distinct from the objects that surround us and compose us. If we
werent aware of our subjective nature, we just might be able to conceive our-
selves as being robots all the way down, as Daniel Dennett has been charac-
terized as arguing (and which he does not deny).8 We are aware of it, however;
our internal experience of ourselves as conscious subjects drives the obvious
question of why we should exist as such, and the surprising fact is that
religious communities have been meaningfully addressing this important

7 See Guthrie (1993) for the first, Boyer (2001) for the second.
8 See Dennett (2005).
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 151

existential question perhaps wrongly, but effectively nonetheless for

countless generations.
I will state my conviction clearly that an objective, scientific account of bodies
cannot meaningfully address the problem of subjectivity. Subjectivity, thus, must
be a basic category. Yet knowledge of human subjectivity is a logical achievement
only; philosophical analysis of subjectivity recognizes that the objective parts of
our brains as understood by science do not add up to experience; something
excess is present, though nothing that can be named (objectified) is that excess.
This leads us to identify ourselves with what we are not, leaving an empty place-
holder in place of positive knowledge of our subjective selves. This, I suggest, is
what invites a conviction that if we are to be known at all, it is only through
experience of a higher-level subjectivity. Without this we cannot be named, can-
not be identified. This kind of naming has been claimed to occur in the realm of
myth and the depths of mystical encounter. As theologian Paul Tillich writes,
man discovers himself when he discovers God; he discovers something that is
identical with himself although it transcends him (1959, 10).
This kind of profoundly grounding subjective experience seems to be reli-
ably produced in ritual involving the divine, and has wide support from theo-
logians of various religious traditions, suggesting a kind of generic religious
apologetic justifying religious community participation. At the risk of multi-
plying references, I want to demonstrate in the paragraphs that follow that this
experience is considered central to many religious traditions, both Eastern and
Western, and clearly points to the meaningfulness of religion as a result of par-
ticipation in something experienced as greater than ones self.
Consider the work of Nasr, writing recently within the Islamic tradition. In
summarizing the way the soul arrives at faith, he writes, Perhaps the most
immediate experience of man is his subjectivity, the mystery of inwardness
and a consciousness which can reflect upon itself, opening inwardly unto the
Infinite which is also bliss (1989, 147). But merely realizing our subjectivity as
distinct from our experience of objects isnt enough for faith. Supreme knowl-
edge which can deliver us requires realizing the relativity of the soul; but going
beyond the realm of the soul requires the transformation of the soul itself. This
is why the soul must become disciplined by spiritual virtues, which for Nasr,
are given through the traditions of the Islamic religious community (1989,
31213, 316). When this happens, the soul participates in the really real truth
which is suprahuman.
Or consider the work of Augustine (4th century), writing within the Chri
stian tradition. For Augustine, God cannot be found in the realm of external
material nature. As Cary describes Augustines argument, one must awaken to
a different kind of vision, one that has been going on all along in the soul
152 chapter 7

without being noticedif the soul could only see itself, it would begin to see
what non-bodily things are like (2003, 645). For Augustine, the proper progres-
sion for an individual to understand spiritual matters is to start outward, proceed
inward, and eventually find rest upward. The key moment in all these efforts to
execute the project of inward turn comes when the mind or reason turns from
looking inward to looking upward and discovers that immutable Truth is implicit
in all its judgments (2003, 66). But mere mental acknowledgement of an inner
world that invites a movement towards an upward world is not enough; one
must experience the transformation of the presence of the upward world for one-
self. Internal philosophy must yield to eternal religious revelation.9
Or consider the Yogic tradition in Hinduism. Brahmanical Hinduism pro-
poses that beneath the changing mental and physical processes that are usu-
ally associated with the human self, there is an essential self in all persons, all
selves, called tman, which is a spiritual essence that transmigrates from life to
life. tman is permanent, unchanging (King 1999, 80). Release, within the yogic
tradition, consists of rediscovering within oneself that unity, that Soul pre-
existing the human soul. Thisis accomplished in contemporary human con-
sciousness by the practice of yogic meditation (Reat 1990, 153). As McNamara
(2009) notes, yogic meditation is centered in cessation of thought or the culti-
vation of non-attachment to mental states and bodily desires, and attachment
to the immortal soul, the higher consciousness. In yoga, there is a conscious
effort to quiet the mind, dampen desire and craving, and dethrone the self;
when an old self is shed, one attaches to and becomes a higher Self.
Or consider the work of Sekida (1975), writing within the Zen Buddhist tra-
dition. He discusses the work of zazen sitting concentration in brokering
the religious truth of no-self, which corrects the problematic sense of perma-
nence people cling to. The work of zazen is to deconstruct, step by step, the
natural but incorrect conclusions drawn from our experience of the objective
world, and the experience of our selves. The goal is to recognize the Buddhist
Truth of Impermanence, which reveals that both outward objects and the
internal subjective self are conventional realities that have no ontological sub-
stance, and thus can be deconstructed and manipulated for the sake of well-
being. Patil (2007) notes that as the Buddhist position was formulated by
thinkers such as Dharmakirti (7th century), an important methodological
truth was realized. Though the impermanence of outward experience can be
demonstrated by philosophy, it is at the cost of reifying the inner philosopher
who does the deconstructing. Philosophy is not enough to deconstruct this
inner philosopher; what is needed is the practice of Buddhist meditation to
lead one to the truth of impermanence. Buddhism is not about assenting to a

9 This can be seen in Books VIII and IX of the Confessions (1997/397).

Varieties Of Religious Meaning 153

proposition, but having an experience, mediated in Buddhist practice, that

defines you by showing you are not what you thought you were.
The importance of this example from Buddhism is that the same schema
governing theistic Christian, Muslim, and Hindu accounts holds in a non-theistic
religious setting; the ascent to the highest truth proceeds from the outward, to
the inward, and ultimately to the upward. For Dharmakirti, philosophy can be
used to correct stubborn errors about the external world, but later, participa-
tory experience is necessary to correct an even higher level of stubborn error
about the internal world, which results from the use of philosophy. The highest
truth needs to be experienced existentially, in religious performance.
It is not just theologians who have been struck by the problem of subjectivity
and the need to access resources in religious practice to explain it. In a fascinat-
ing irony in the history of science, the problematic relationship of human subjec-
tivity with respect to the objective natural world became obvious to those
physicists working on the new physics at the beginning of the 20th century. Ken
Wilber, in his volume Quantum Questions (2001/1984), brings together the mysti-
cal writings of physicists such as Schrdinger, Heisenberg, Planck, de Broglie,
Einstein, and Pauli. Wilber argues that their interest in religion was not the result
of any positive finding of the new physics, but resulted from their growing aware-
ness that human subjective experience always has and always will be an ineradi-
cable part of the human quest for understanding nature. Prior to 20th century
discoveries in physics, the ineradicable presence of mind was seemingly hidden
by the power of Newtonian physics, as it was possible to simply assume that our
common-sense understandings of matter, force, and other such concepts were
unmediated by our own minds, existing out there objectively. The new physics
put that false idea to rest, reinforcing the fact that human minds are inevitably
involved in even the most objective accounts of nature. As the subjective nature
of mind cant be explained by any science that deals with objective reality, these
physicists were driven to pursue religious themes and explanations.
Here Ill quote Arthur Eddington as representative of the position of many
of the physicists. He writes,

We have learnt that the exploration of the external world by the methods
of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world
of [mathematical] symbols, beneath which those methods are unadapted
for penetrating. If to-day you ask a physicist what he has finally made out
the aether or the electron to be, the answer will not be a description in
terms of billiard balls or fly-wheels or anything concrete; he will point
instead to a number of symbols and a set of mathematical equations
which they satisfy. What do the symbols stand for? The mysterious reply
is given that physics is indifferent to that; it has no means of probing
154 chapter 7

beneath the symbolism. To understand the phenomena of the physical

world, it is necessary to know the equations which the symbols obey but
not the nature of that which is being symbolized.
Feeling that there must be more behind, we return to our starting point
in human consciousness the one centre where more might become
known. There we find other stirrings, other revelations (true or false) than
those conditioned by the world of symbols.
Quoted in wilber 2001, 196

And tying this insight to religion, he further writes,

[T]hose who in the search for truth start from consciousness as a seat of
self-knowledge with interests and responsibilities not confined to the
material plane are just as much facing the hard facts of experience as those
who start from consciousness as a device for reading the indications of
spectroscopes and micrometers The starting point of belief in mystical
religion is a conviction of significance or, as I have called it earlier, the
sanction of a striving in the consciousness. This must be emphasized
because appeal to intuitive conviction of this kind has been the founda-
tion of religion through all ages and I do not wish to give the impress that
we have now found something new and more scientific to substitute.
Quoted in wilber 2001, 192, 212

We see, then, there is widespread support that something like the subject/
object distinction figures large in making sense of the meaningfulness of reli-
gion. I suggest it is the emergent nature of the human subjective self that
drives our need to find our existential home in religion, to seek for a supersub-
jective reality that is experienced through ritual practice of some kind. What
about religious practices would explain its remarkable ability to facilitate such
powerful experiences of supersubjectivity? What could possibly explain this
common feature of all religions?

Different Ways of Considering the Spiritual Map, and Their


Theology must depend upon a metaphysical interpretation of the

josiah royce, The Problem of Christianity
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 155

One way to account for religions ability to create super-subjectivity would be

to claim that religious community dynamics represent a strange loop, ground-
ing a community that has subjective experiences as a single agent. Stating the
same thing from the perspective of individual participants, the claim would be
that ritual and myth facilitate the exploration of the potential for shared sub-
jective experience, which has an ontological status greater than that of the
subjective experience of individual participants. This, I have argued, is exactly
what Durkheim suggests; I am supporting his proposal in the terms of emer-
gence theory. The model for this collective subjectivity would be the commu-
nity of neurons in our heads, whose dynamics constitute a strange loop,
grounding emergent agents you and I who have experiences as single peo-
ple, and have an ontological status greater than that of our mere neurophysiol-
ogy, objectively considered.
How would such a claim be supported, and what alternative interpretation
of religion would challenge it? Central to the discussion would be to get clear on
the different ways we might interpret the claim that religious experience repre-
sents a spiritual map encoding sociality. There are different ways to interpret
what occurs in decentering, and how it facilitates shared group experiences.
Different metaphysical assumptions and purported facts about shared group
experiences will lead to different kinds of theories as to what capacities lie
latent in the process, and different ways to interpret the phrase, spiritual map.
For example, some might argue that experience of the divine is a powerful but
illusory and purely local experience. When the experiences of many psilocybin-
ingesters, for example, are guided by a shared view of the divine world, it might
strongly bias the experience of each individual in a way that unconsciously coor-
dinates group experience. Since unconscious, the social coordination would
wrongly be viewed as coming from the active intervention of the divine.
An enlightening example of this kind of shared unconscious map was dem-
onstrated, again, by illusionist Derren Brown, this time for the television show
Trick of the Mind, Series Three, Episode 3, which aired on Channel 4 Television
Corporation in Great Britain on Sunday April 9, 2006.10 According to his web-
site, in this episode,

[Derren] meets a group of individuals to see if he can communicate an

image to them subconsciously. After a moment of relaxation they are told

10 uk viewers can see this episode on the Channel 4 website at

programmes/derren-brown-trick-of-the-mind/4od#3181155. Non-uk viewers can see the
episode on YouTube, at
156 chapter 7

to draw the image they saw in the back of their mind. Their pictures are
displayed and all but two people have drawn a very similar drooping
flower, which is shown to match an image Derren has sealed in his pocket.
In a debrief afterwards Derren suggests that the people who got the
flower are the sort of people who would use subliminal tapes and cds,
and it transpires that the group of people had previously all used the
same subliminal cd to aid sleeping. Derren explains to the viewers that
the cd, Dreamscapes, had been prepared by him a year previously and
sent out to people who had responded to an advert; they had also been
sent a questionnaire to help Derren identify the more suggestible partici-
pants. The most promising were invited to a venue called Dreamspace
for this experiment along with one person who had returned the cd and
one who had not felt any benefit from the cd: these were the two people
who had not drawn the flowers. None of the participants had been aware
that there was any connection between the cd and the invitation to
come to the venue.11

What this social experiment demonstrates is that associations developed

unconsciously and subliminally can play out in unexpected ways that appear
supernatural, but in fact demonstrate unconscious biasing. Using this explana-
tion of the spiritual map and its causal efficacy, we could argue that the Native
American boy who experiences his spirit guide on a vision quest, and then
returns to the group, will relate to others and be related to by others in ways
that are consciously as well as subtly and unconsciously biased by the theologi-
cal ideas guiding the community. Their shared theology acts to identify par-
ticular spirit guides and their relations to other spiritual beings, and social
coordination would result, biased by such shared understandings. This could
lead to the kinds of interesting unconscious psychic manifestations Derren
Brown intentionally cultivated, creating the sense of divine causality. The
illusion of super-subjectivity is produced, as persons are located in a metaphys-
ical and social order that appears to be directed by some sort of outside, caus-
ally effective agency. Coincidences and synchronicities might reliably be
produced in such a situation, grounding what the ritual participant means
by the causal action of the divine. It is important to note that this vision of
the spiritual map is completely consistent with the emergent account of religion
I have offered in previous chapters. It is one possible way to account for the inter-
twined relationship between self-narrative and group narratives, mediated by

11 The description is taken from

Varieties Of Religious Meaning 157

religious experience guided by a spiritual map. Further, this account is consis-

tent with metaphysical assumptions that ground current psychological and
sociological scientific investigation.
But is there possibly more to the story than this? Specifically, is something
like subjectivity and conscious experience necessarily limited to the workings
of human (and perhaps animal) brains? The extraordinary qualities of func-
tionally-related groups of neurons such as the unity of conscious experience,
its partial freedom with respect to deterministic laws, and the experience of
values such as beauty, truth, and goodness compellingly evade explanation
on the assumption of materialist conceptions of the brain. Many leading theo-
ries of the mind/brain interaction posit that subjective experience is emergent
upon functional organization; might not functionally related groups of people
be the ground upon which further emergent qualities exist?
This is where metaphysical considerations do in fact matter when assess-
ing religious communities, in the same way they do when considering the
human mind/brain. I previously pointed to the fact that Haitians dont just
dance together in the name of the lwa; they dance with the lwa as the lwa
dance through at least some of them. This could be interpreted completely
naturally; that is, according to a metaphysical prescription that says indi-
vidual experience is locked in the brains of individuals, without the possi-
bility to affect others except through past and present bodily and/or
linguistic interaction. However, if the dynamics of a religious community
are plausibly tied to the strange loop dynamics that characterize human
persons and biological lineages, it is possible to suggest that religious com-
munities have capacities and qualities that are sui generis, connected to
their identity as emergent agents.12 As put by Josiah Royce, a later contem-
porary of Durkheim who also described the religious community as emer-
gent, theology might depend upon a metaphysical interpretation of the
community (1968, 233).
What makes this suggestion plausible from the side of data are the many
(anecdotal) examples of paranormal experience of various types that make up
the warp and woof of religious community testimony.13 This testimony needs to
be approached carefully, due to difficulties resulting from known characteristics
of human psychology such as wishful thinking, difficulties in thinking statisti-
cally, hypnotic effects, projection, confirmation effects, and confabulation,

12 The illusion to Durkheim here (sui generis) is intentional, as Durkheim explicitly stated
that religiously-empowered social groups are a consciousness of consciousnesses.
13 An excellent introduction to the positive claims and issues of paranormal experience is
Griffin (1997).
158 chapter 7

which Derren Brown and others exploit.14 Controlled scientific testing of para-
psychological phenomena has not returned results that have managed to con-
vince most scientists that something real is being investigated (Cordn 2005).
However, philosopher Huston Smith (1991b; 2003) has argued that what is being
claimed in religious testimony is precisely the existence of something that
would not in principle be controllable by human agency, detectable by scien-
tific experiments. The agency that religious communities point to would be,
under the metaphysical interpretation being explored here, a result of organiza-
tion of wider scope than that of the individual mind, and at a level ontologically
superior to human agency. If there is something like a collective subjective con-
scious experience, we should not expect to be able to control it as we expect to
control atoms and rocks. Even other human persons, because emergent, cannot
be brought under a scheme of control, Smith points out; to achieve anything
like objectivity in psychological experimentation, it is necessary to hide from
the subject the purpose of the study. Neither can the behavior of emergent bio-
logical entities be understood solely by physical laws (Davies 1999; Favareau
2007). If emergent corporate agents exist as shared mental phenomena across
many religious participants, it is they who dance circles around us, not we
they (H. Smith 1991b, 212).
Psychologist Elizabeth Mayer has effectively explored some of the layers of
group subjectivity in her book Extraordinary Knowing (2007). Her scientific
worldview was turned on its head by the highly improbable discovery of her
daughters lost harp by a dowser, using a map of San Francisco, from thousands
of miles away. Freeman Dysons introduction to the book lays out a position
towards such anecdotal accounts that acknowledges the problem of anecdotes
they are not controlled experiments and suggests a response that echoes
Huston Smiths argument: there is something about the nature of the phenom-
ena that exceeds the proper scope of science. He says it is his position that esp
is real, as the anecdotal evidence suggests, but cannot be tested since esp and
other such phenomena belong to a mental universe that is too fluid and eva-
nescent to fit within the rigid protocols of controlled scientific testing (Mayer
2007, ix). To some, this may appear as a dodge, an excuse, and special pleading.
We might want to join with such skeptics, if it wasnt for the fact that the every-
day experience of subjective unity, qualia, and value accompanied by the func-
tioning of a group of neurons none of which (presumably) have conscious
experiences of their own also escapes the grasp of science.

14 Michael Shermer (2002) and Carl Sagan (1996) do a good job exploring the psychological
problems that contribute to the misidentification of the natural as supernatural.
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 159

There is an interesting subset of the psychotherapy literature that focuses

on shared subjective experience, as clients and therapists have sometimes
found themselves linked together in ways that seem to defy the standard
metaphysical view of the mind/brain. Carpenter (2002) lists many therapists,
including Freud and Jung, who have had such experiences, and felt them com-
pelling enough to discuss publicly in papers or books.15 What these experi-
ences suggest, in terms of the possibility of decentering experiences acting as
a spiritual map, is there may be constraints on individual decentering that
arise from the interaction of shared subjective experience.
While I only raise the question here, I acknowledge that much of the value
added claimed by religious community participation comes from the mean-
ingful and inexplicable wisdom and knowledge that some people experience
in such settings. It is these types of experiences that ground belief in the causal
agency of the divine in the first place. Van de Ports (2005) very insightful mus-
ings on this topic in his study of Brazilian Bahian religion, as well as Soms
(1997) insights into the African Dagara, could certainly be enlisted in support
of such a position.
There are different implications for the value of religion entailed by the two
positions I have sketched here. If the spiritual map is merely a bias shared by a
group of people, which produces conscious and unconscious coordination of
individuals according to shared values and expectations, it deceives individuals
into thinking that they are engaging a divine causal agent that in fact does not
exist. The specified absence created by ritual and myth does not act as a place-
holder for external causes, as religious people believe, but rather for uncon-
scious causes. On the other hand, if we conceive of the spiritual map with the
assumption that extraordinary knowing and shared subjective experience is a
possibility, then the maps effectiveness might be due to the fact that it repre-
sents the boundaries of a genuine and sui generis form of consciousness. The
specified absences of ritual and myth make room for that shared, subjective
experience. In both cases, the map acts as a constraint on individual self-narra-
tives as they interact with group narratives.
The first case suggests that religious belief is purely error; whatever good
religion might produce individually or socially, existentially or reproductively,
there is no truth to religion. Nor is there any unique value from the perspective
of the individual to the particular functions that religion performs, if these

15 A partial list of the more important works would include (Fodor 1942; Fodor 1949; Jung
1957; Jung 1963; Servadio 1935; Servadio 1955; Ullman 1949; Ullman 1959; Ullman 1975;
Eisenbud 1946; Eisenbud 1969; Eisenbud 1970; Schwartz 1965; Schwartz 1967; Mintz 1983;
Orloff 1997; Freud 1933; Ehrenwald 1942; Ehrenwald 1948; Ehrenwald 1955; Ehrenwald 1970).
160 chapter 7

functions can be replaced by secular versions. While the group dynamics of

religion may be unique, unprecedented, and demonstrate a telos, these dynam-
ics deceive individuals to in order to have their effect on them as individuals.
Even so, this is non-trivially important; considering the important healing
effects we have examined above, its therapeutic truth remains in force. But
this is not unlike the therapeutic truth of a placebo. This is ultimately Dennetts
position, as I read him. This view suggests that the error of religion should be
corrected, the various technologies of religion rescued and put under human
science, and the spell broken. The second case suggests that religious com-
munities involve the facilitation of unique kinds of knowing, new kinds of
experiencing, new kinds of subjectivity, and new kinds of value.
In an interesting way, these two options represent a subtle distinction
between the teleodynamics of life, as compared to the teleodynamics of mind.
The teleodynamics of life are due to the encoded memory of dna constraining
cell dynamics without requiring belief in a mystical or mind-like awareness
arising from these dynamics. Life, then, even when conceived teleodynami-
cally, does not challenge monistic materialism as the default metaphysical
assumption of science. It is only when we consider the teleodynamics of mind
that such a challenge appears. So the question when considering religion is, do
we consider it more like life (which would correspond to a Derren Brown
interpretation of Rappaport), or more like a subjective mind (which would
correspond to an Elizabeth Mayer interpretation of Durkheim)?
These choices would guide different research proposals for investigating
religion in the future. Both versions would suggest that investigating the soci-
ology, neuroscience, semiotics, and emergent interaction effects of religion
should continue apace; investigation into these can proceed without concern
for the metaphysical implications discussed. What the second version of the
spiritual map suggests is that there might be a further research program pos-
sible. It would investigate commonalities in the way religious communities
experience, and are constrained by, the effects of shared corporate subjectivity.
Phenomenological accounts of religious experience could be investigated
that focus not on the content of belief on the view of religion developed
here, this can vary widely but rather on common ways individuals in diverse
communities experience the constraints of this subjective corporate experi-
ence, discern the true divine dynamics from the false, and experience the
outcomes of faithful adherence and willful resistance to those constraints.
Why are there virtuosi in different religious traditions, and what do they have
in common in terms of practice? How do they prepare to be a vessel for the
divine, develop their sensitivities to whatever feedback indicates success in
those states, and see the effect of transmitting those states to others? Certainly
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 161

there is a huge literature that could be combed through with an eye on such
an investigation.


Emergence theory, developed to make sense of life and mind without appeal-
ing to anything outside of nature, re-envisions nature to make room for these
phenomena. Emergence theory focuses on system organization, and the new
capacities and qualities of certain systems. It avoids the twin errors of a reduc-
tionism that pays no attention to organization, and a materialism that has no
capacity to deal with human subjective experience. At first glance, religion
represents something that might be productively engaged by emergence the-
ory, since it, like life and mind, has traditionally invited explanation in terms of
causes posited to exist outside of nature divine Beings and Ways.
I have argued in this book that careful attention to the scientific question of
emergent organization, and the philosophical question of emergent subjective
capacities and qualities, represents a fruitful way to understand religious com-
munity dynamics and experiences. Here I am following the lead of such semi-
nal figures in religious studies as Roy Rappaport and mile Durkheim. I drew
attention to the way the decentering psychological experiences of individuals,
and the robust and adaptive social organization of religious groups, have
become intertwined through the mediating influence of ritual and myth; each
reinforces the continued existence of the other. This, I posit, is a better way to
understand religion than perspectives that only focus on human biology and
neurology, on the one hand, and perspectives that insist on the pre-existing
reality of divine Beings and Ways that exist outside of nature, on the other. The
emergence of a unique form of human sociality is what bridges the gap between
these two incomplete perspectives. Emergence theory allows one to think that
religion is a phenomenon that ultimately does need to be studied on its own
level, as some of the most important thinkers in religious studies have thought.
At the same time, with an emergence approach the focus shifts from the con-
tent of religious belief, to the structure of religious dynamics. It is there that
the magic of an emergent shift in ontological levels happens. It happens
when social dynamics take on the structure of a strange loop: when a symbol
system encodes constraints on the interaction of individuals in such a way
that both the symbols and the interactions are reproduced, each reciprocally
co-facilitating16 the other.

16 This is Deacons term.

162 chapter 7

I have argued that Rappaports conception of metaperformativity is critical

to understanding religion as exemplifying these dynamics. This idea, which is
the most important contribution of Ritual and Religion in the Making of
Humanity to religious studies, examines the strange capacity of ritual and
myth to create psychic and social dynamics that suggest the reality of the very
thing ritual and myth posit exists. To participate in ritual and myth is to posit
that the divine exists, that it is authoritative, and that participants have sub-
mitted to its influence. This has potent effects on the psychology of individu-
als, and the structural organization of a religious community. It invites
decentering religious experiences of great power, and a robust, adaptive social
organization that has at its center divine content that has no direct material
or physical referents. This kind of community is able to adapt to a great vari-
ety of social and cultural situations. This interpretation of religious commu-
nity dynamics, I argue, should be taken very seriously, regardless of what one
thinks about the status of shared subjective experiences and extraordinary
knowing. Even if one is not willing to countenance such metaphysical possi-
bilities, we still can note that the spiritual map that ritual and myth create
connects psychic experiences and religious sociality such that they each rein-
force the other.
For the more metaphysically daring, emergence theory gives tools for think-
ing about emergent religious experiences, as well. The profoundly meaningful
way religious community participation can be experienced which even its
critics can acknowledge suggests that some kind of important coordination is
occurring between the subjective experiences of many individuals. We might
be able to consider religious communities as a locus of unique experience, for
the same reasons we consider human brains as such a locus. If both human
brains and religious communities exhibit the same organizational dynamics,
there is no principled reason to think that unique capacities and qualities
could not arise in religious community dynamics, on analogy to what occurs
when human brains are placed in relationship to the natural and social worlds,
through the mediating capacities of language. Both religious communities and
human brains posit, via symbolic representation, the existence of something
(the I; the divine) that therefore makes a difference in ongoing experiences of
persons and religious groups, respectively. The problem of the causal role
played by consciousness and thus the causal role of the divine, conceived on
analogy to it has not been resolved in this book, but the analogy suggests that
whatever options we come up with to describe the causal role of conscious-
ness, we could use this as a guide for considering the causal role of the divine.
Indeed, we may find that any headway made on the problem of divine activity
may shed light on the problem of consciousness, as noted in Ch. 1.
Varieties Of Religious Meaning 163

Taking an emergent approach to religion suggests a holistic approach to reli-

gious community dynamics that the field of religious studies desperately
needs, if it wants to maintain itself as a field. My hope is that this book contrib-
utes to a view of religion that understands it in its stunning wholeness, but
does so in a way that views it as completely natural.

Confucianism as a Test Case

In Appendix, I will use the categories articulated in Ch.s 24 to take on a test case
designed to showcase how emergent categories can contribute to our understanding
of religion. I will use these categories to make sense of Confucianism, a worldview/
religion that, at least to some interpreters, is absent of anything that could be confused
with decentering, and doesnt conform to Western understanding of religion. This will
help assess a potential criticism of my approach: that decentering religious experi-
ences are overemphasized, or, conversely, that the term religion should be properly
extended to group dynamics that are broader than those indicated here.

Introduction to the Problem

In introducing a text exploring whether Confucianism is a religion, Neville (1990)

argues that there are three defining aspects to a religion, summarized as:

1. A cosmology, defining the fundamental structures and limits of the world and
forming the basic ways in which cultures and individuals imagine how things are
and what they mean.
2. Ritual, which is finite sets of repeatable and symbolizable actions that epitomize
things a tradition takes to be crucial to defining the normative place of humans
in the cosmos.
3. Procedures for fundamental transformation aimed to relate persons harmoni-
ously to the normative cosmological elements, the path of spiritual perfection.

As my argument has developed in this book, I am in wide agreement with Nevilles

summary, as I have argued that each of these could be considered an entailment of
social dynamics exemplifying Rocha & Hordijks three criteria. Specifically, I have
suggested that a religious community, if it holds to the form I have described, will have
concepts of the divine, composed of non-indexing Ultimate Sacred Postulates and met-
aphorical Dominant Symbols, which together characterize the way the invisible world
is relevant to the visible world. Second, it will have a means by which myth is decoded
into a potent, society-constructing form, which I have argued is the result of metaper-
formativity. Metaperformativity is facilitated by ritual. Third, a religious community
will invite and provide room for decentering and the transformation of the person
to a higher self that is implied in the Dominant Symbols. This invitation for

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 5|doi 10.1163/9789004293762_009

166 Appendix

transformation comes as a formal entailment of ritual and myth, and it is experienced

as the divine making itself manifest. Together, these features of a religious community
create a special kind of community, a community of saints, linked together by the fact
that they share the same spiritual map. This community will manifest reproduction/
variation/selection, leading to intelligent adaptation to its cultural environment.
So the question I will explore in this section is: Is Confucianism a religion? According
to Neville, there are those who say no, who see Confucianism as a way to perfect cer-
tain important social relations. For this group, there is nothing else to sagehood than
to conform to normative ways of life. Those who say yes argue some version or other
of the classical Neo-Confucian thesis that true humanity is fully achieved only when
the usual run of life is transformed so as to manifest Principle in a full and perspicuous
way (1990, x). We will examine examples of both claims, getting a sense of the argu-
ment. Then, from the perspective of an emergent conception of religion, we will exam-
ine the evidence concerning Confucianism, concluding with a particular look at the
life of a modern Confucian sage, Okada Takehiko.

The View of Seligman et al.

First, let us examine a view of Confucianism that would be hard to characterize as

religious by any definition of the term. It is contained in Seligman et al.s Ritual and its
Consequences (2008). This book, which is a rich source for understanding the deep
appeal of a ritual way of life, is notable, to this reader at least, for its lack of reference
to theological or religious elements in its exposition of ritual. Specifically, there is
almost no mention of a hidden realm inaccessible to normal rational and pragmatic
When the authors offer an example of ritual that fits the view they wish to promote,
they turn to an early Chinese text on ritual called Nature Emerges from the Decree
(Xing Zi Ming Chu), which they note is a recently excavated text from the 4th century
bce. In what follows, I will utilize mostly direct quotes of their explication and expan-
sion of this text, though changing the order somewhat and occasionally adding close
paraphrases and transitional phrases for clarity:1

According to Nature Emerges from the Decree, it is up to humans to build pat-

terns of relationships out of this fractured world. There are only actions, and it is
up to humans to ritualize some of those actions and thereby set up an ordered
ethical way of life. The reason why this is necessary is humans are containers of
emotional energies. These energies are constantly being dragged out by our

1 Taken from Seligman et al. (2008, 325).

Confucianism As A Test Case 167

encounters with things, including others. The Way, here defined as movement
itself, starts with our dispositions and the ways that our energies cause us to
interact with other things. The goal of human growth is to move from our dispo-
sitions to propriety responding to things properly, instead of by immediate
disposition. And the repeated study that makes this possible is based upon ritual
and related forms of practice a canon of proper behavior that has been built up
through past responses.
Ritual is a repertoire of these patterns of relationship, a repertoire that is
endlessly growing, constantly changing, and always in danger of becoming inad-
equate. The criterion for which actions from the past should become part of
that ritual canon is whether their continued performance helps to refine ones
ability to respond to others. This canon consists of the set of songs collected
as the Book of Songs, the speeches collected in the Book of Documents, the ritu-
als collected in the Book of Rituals, and the music collected as the Music.2
Originally, these appropriate songs, speeches, and rituals were merely a small
subset of the many responses humans gave to their lived situations. But the later
born sages deemed some of these actions exemplary, and as such defined them
as part of a ritual canon that people in general should enact. Sages put them into
an order and built an educational curriculum out of them. The goal of such
an enactment would be to refine ones own dispositions: by reenacting exem-
plary actions from the past, one trains ones responses so that one can achieve
In the Analects of Confucius, the distinction is made between ritual and
humaneness. Humaneness is perhaps best understood as simply the way that
one acts ritually when there is no ritual to tell one what to do. The practice of
ritual should help direct proper conduct in a situation outside of the proper con-
text of a known ritual. For example, one trains a child to say thank you. For the
first few years of this training, it is by rote, but the hope is that the child, as she
grows, will be able to express equivalent forms of expressing gratitude in situa-
tions where a simple thank you would be inappropriate. If one spends ones life
doing rituals properly, then one gains a sense of how the subjunctive world con-
structed out of those rituals could be constructed in situations without a ritual
precedent, or in situations where ritual obligations conflict. For early Confucian
thinkers, there is an even higher level than humaneness: the highest example of
ritual action was to become a sage. But one can define a sage as simply someone
who acts properly in any given situation, whether or not there is a ritual prece-
dent to guide his action.

2 These are older, classical texts Confucius appealed to.

168 Appendix

I do not suggest Seligman et al. mean this account of one particular Chinese text to be
a picture of Confucianism; they use it as an example of a ritual approach to life they
feel is valuable. But the important fact is this text, and the authors explication of it,
makes use of many of the same terms and themes that those who think Confucianism
is a religion make use of terms such as Ritual, Humaneness, the Way, and Sage3 but
here, these terms are used in such a way that nothing mystical or religious is invoked.
This demonstrates that it is possible to interpret Confucianism, as Neville noted,
as merely a way to perfect certain important social relations, and that there is noth-
ing else to sagehood than conforming to normative ways of life. Key moves in this
approach are

(a) To use purely pragmatic criterion for deciding which actions from the past
should become part of the ritual canon i.e. whether continued performance
of them helps to refine ones ability to respond to others.
(b) To define the Way as something known to normal experience i.e. movement
(c) To describe the process of development and growth of an individual as some-
thing one does to and for oneself e.g. refining ones own dispositions; reen-
acting exemplary actions from the past; and training ones responses.
(d) To consider the sage as simply someone who acts properly in any given situation.

If this text contains a representative picture of Confucianism, then it is not difficult to

see that it fits none of Rocha & Hordijks criteria in its social dynamics. But what do
others say?

The View of Ames

Let us turn to Ames (2003), who notes certain key terms in Confucianism do have cos-
mological significance, and uses the term religious to describe Confucianism, although
his account downplays the importance of a hidden realm inaccessible to normal ratio-
nal and pragmatic experience.
Ames writes that his primary goal is to defend Confucianism from those who mis-
represent it from opposite sides: from those who offer a Christianized, Heaven-
centered interpretation of classical Confucianism; and from the default claim that
Confucianism is merely a secular humanism. Ames suggests there is a personal trans-
formation in Confucianism: a transformation of the quality of ones life in the ordinary

3 Capitalized, italicized terms throughout this section represent technical terms in

Confucianism As A Test Case 169

business of the day. In his analysis of the classical Confucian text Doctrine of the Mean,
we get an idea of how that transformation occurs, and to what end: by sustained
attention to achieving equilibrium by staying centered in the familiar affairs of ones
life[which] leads ultimately to religious experience and pays off in religious divi-
dends (2003, 170).
But what does Ames mean by religious when he talks about religious experience
and religious dividends? He argues that in the Confucian corpus, it boils down to a
focused appreciation of the complex meaning and value of the total field of existing
things through a reflexive awakening toones own participatory role as co-creator
(2003, 177). This is an important sentence in his overall argument; let us unpack it a bit.
First, note that none of the terms need be interpreted as theological terms. Neither
focused attention nor meaning and value nor total field of existing things nor reflex-
ive awakening nor co-creator require analysis in terms of Ultimate Sacred Postulates
or Dominant Symbols. For example, Ames defines co-creativity from the Confucian
perspective as getting the most out of ones experience (2003, 166). And reflexive
awakening seems to be covered by the realization that human growth is both shaped
by and contributes to the meaning of the total field of existing things (2003, 165).
Further, Ames notes that the Doctrine of the Mean suggests humans have everything
they need to achieve realization without reference to something transcendent, and the
world is sufficiently served by such human creativity that it need not appeal to divine
But buried in these descriptions is at least one key idea that, when Ames describes
it, does seem to point in the direction of a hidden, divine Way. What is meant by the
idea that human co-creativity contributes to the meaning of the total field of existing
things? Ames elaborates on this idea in terms that appear to be theological statements.
He suggests that in classical Confucianism, becoming centered in the familiar relations
of life (exemplified best by family life) produces a harmony that is achieved through
patterns of deference. As one learns to extend deference into the world, one ulti-
mately becomes a co-creator of cosmic proportions in nurturing the processes of
heaven and earth (2003, 170).
Certainly, becoming a co-creator of cosmic proportions, nurturing the processes of
heaven and earth, goes beyond what normal experience might suggest is to be achieved
by practicing certain deferential behaviors towards family members. So why would
one believe that deferential behaviors towards family members has this effect? This
idea seems important to understanding Confucianism somehow. Ames, however, does
not expound on what the source of this belief is, or how it fits in to the other aspects of
Confucian life he develops.
For example, his account of sagehood the end goal of the process of personal
transformation in Confucianism is described in terms that require no elaboration or
appeal to any hidden causes. And Ames writes that Ritual practice, which is how one
170 Appendix

learns deference, and supposedly becomes a co-creator of heaven and earth, is simply
learned patterns performed individually and elegantly. Ritual releases the uniqueness
of a participant as one engages the aesthetic project of becoming a person, achieving
a disposition, an attitude, a posture, and an identity. Ritual is personal performance,
revealing ones worth to oneself and ones community. If these characterizations are
correct, how could a Confucian think he or she is becoming a co-creator of cosmic
proportions through Ritual?
Thus, though Ames attempts to use terms like religious to explain and capture the
essence of Confucianism e.g. Rites are value-revealing life forms that attract emula-
tion and inspire religious devotion (2003, 174) he hasnt developed any aspects of
Confucian practice that seems to fit the description of a religious community as a
strange loop. If Ames is right, Confucianism could not be considered a religion on his
terms. But what if we take the cosmological idea noted by Ames (becoming a co-creator
of cosmic proportionsnurturing the processes of heaven and earth) as having causal
relevance in a Confucian worldview?

The View of Ching

Ching (1986) has argued that Confucianism has deeply mystical elements, and that
these elements have been significant throughout the course of the Confucian heritage.
Her account is notable for its emphasis on a higher consciousness and something
greater than the individual, actively sought as the source of sagehood and propriety by
many leaders of Confucianism.
She begins by describing the religious context of Confucius himself, noting that his
language and arguments are grounded in an inherited religious view of the Lord on
High Heaven. At the time, this was a supreme and personal deity. Ching notes that
though Confucius was largely quiet about god and the afterlife, he says it was Heaven
that both gave him his message and protected him. And though he was skeptical about
ghosts and spirits, he believed human beings are accountable to a supreme being.
Though he only discreetly mentions Heaven, his own self-description suggests a man
who cultivated an interior life with the goal of grasping the will of Heaven so deeply
that his instincts were transformed, and he learned to appreciate the things of
the spirit.
Two early Confucians, Mencius and Hsun-tzu, though very different in certain
respects, each developed a mystical approach to the individual in proper social rela-
tions. Mencius, when writing about the correct inner disposition for Ritual, alludes to
the presence in the heart of an actuality greater than itself (1986, 77). And while belief
in a supreme god seems to have diminished in China after the time of Mencius, a
mystical bent to Confucianism continued. Hsun-tzu didnt belief in heaven as a
Confucianism As A Test Case 171

supernatural being or power, but instead, thought in terms of a heavenly principle

which should regulate our natural likes and dislikes. This heavenly principle was our
original, deep self. It is characterized by a particular aesthetic harmony which can
be seen most clearly in Ritual and in music. Ritual and music help us to bring to expres-
sion our inner equilibrium and tranquility, which ought to reflect the harmony
between heaven and earth. Hsun-tzu wrote in the wisdom and completeness of their
ceremonies and music, we see the directing power of Heaven and Earth (1986, 68).
Ching notes a deep mysticism to the classic texts of Confucianism, as Sage-Kings
are presented in dialogue with Heaven, as sons of Heaven receiving instructions and
gaining blessings and protection. Even texts that seem to eschew this view of Heaven,
such as the Doctrine of the Mean, describe how internal, emotional harmony puts one
in touch with the processes of life and creativity. Because harmony links Heaven, the
cosmos, and the individual in his/her social relations, this suggests to Ching the tradi-
tional microcosm-macrocosm correlation between the inner workings of human
mind/hearts and the creative processes of the universe. The Doctrine of the Mean
clearly expresses the belief that emotional harmony opens man to something greater
than himself (1986, 69). According to Ching, this text supplied the impetus to a
Confucian form of meditation.
Ching moves on to examine Neo-Confucianism as it developed in the late first
millennium/beginning of the second millennium. She is particularly interested in
how Neo-Confucian meditation though perhaps inspired by Buddhist and Taoist
versions was consistent with a classical Confucian worldview, and even opened up
classic Confucian themes for further development. Neo-Confucians recognized the
need of preserving the Heavenly principle and eliminating human passions (1986,
70). She notes two sides to Neo-Confucian spirituality, understood under the over-
arching terms diminution and growth. The idea was that spiritual growth is possible
only when accompanied functionally by a certain degree of self-denial (1986, 69).
Through meditation, unity and harmony and knowledge of the moral self is sought,
with the goal of self-improvement, allowing a fuller manifestation of the Heavenly
principle within. Through Confucian meditation, one returns to ones original
nature. Confucian meditationentails not just an examination of conscience, but is
definitely oriented toward a higher consciousness through the emptying of the self
and of desires (1986, 745).
For Ching, Confucian history demonstrates a thoroughly mystical perspective on
human existence. Perhaps the single best exemplification of Chings account of the
Confucian perspective is found in her comment, To become humane that is, a per-
fect human being one must preserve and nurture the Heavenly principle within
ones mind and heart (1986, 71). It seems, then, for Ching mystical belief is at the center
of Confucian thought. And this would seem to put her at least superficially at odds
with the approaches of Seligman et al. and Ames, who focus on socially beneficent and
172 Appendix

aesthetic behavior, respectively. Lurking behind all of these accounts, however, has
been the idea of personal change. Confucianism seems to involve a program for per-
sonal change; the question is, what kind of change does Confucianism promote?

The View of Taylor

Taylor (1990) claims that the idea of transformation is what allows us to distinguish
between a philosophical absolute and a religious absolute. In effect, philosophical
absolutes changes how we think; religious absolutes change how we are. His argument
is that in Confucianism, we have a clear example of a religious absolute that effects
transformation. Taylor focuses on several different historical periods and aspects of
Confucianism to make his point; I will draw on some of his analysis in a later section
when I argue my own position. For now, I want to focus on his account of classi-
cal Confucianism, the role of the sage, and how Neo-Confucians sought to attain
Taylor begins his discussion, as does Ching, by examining the elements of classical
Confucianism that suggest a cosmological aspect. He focuses on the concept of Heaven,
which was the name of the high God of the Chou people. He suggests that for Confucius,
the relationship of humankind to Heaven functions as an absolute. But does this cos-
mological principle functions as a philosophical absolute or a religious absolute?
Taylor argues that for an absolute to function as a religious absolute, it must involve
personal transformation. He writes, Religion provides not only for a relationship with
what is defined as the absolute, but provides as well a way for the individual to move
toward that which is identified as the absolute (1990, 3, italics mine). Ultimate trans-
formation is the quintessential characteristic in the identification of a religious tradi-
tion. If this is the case, the question for the Confucian tradition is the degree to which
Heaven, or the Principle of Heaven, establishes a relationship with humankind that
provides a means of ultimate transformation, such that humankind might realize a
transformed relationship and thus enter into a transformed state of being. Taylor sug-
gests that we find the answer to that question in the Sage, who features large in both
classical and Neo-Confucianism. Taylor argues that in the relationship between
Heaven as a religious absolute and the sage as a transformed person, we have the iden-
tification of a soteriological process and, as a result, the identification of the religious
core of the tradition (1990, 3). Importantly, the Sage, in his/her relationship to Heaven,
serves as a model for the relationship of the Confucian tradition as a whole to Heaven.
Taylor imagines the soul of the Confucian tradition to be the production of a lineage of
Taylors account of classical Confucianism focuses on the way in which a peculiar
kind of power was supposed to be released through sagehood. That power was viewed
Confucianism As A Test Case 173

as flowing from the cosmological structure of the universe. In classical Confucianism,

to develop ones moral nature was not an exercise in developing ones potential only; it
was, in addition, to establish correlation with the Way of Heaven. This was viewed as a
establishing a relationship with an immanent, absolute principle. The Way of Heaven
was viewed as being the ultimate moral order of the universe itself of which human-
kind is but a microcosm (1990, 21). From this unseen but real source of causal efficacy,
both human nature and the cosmos itself gained their moral nature. The great Sage-
Kings of the past understood the Way of Heaven, and thus became conduits for the
release of the power of Heaven into their rule. Confucians, according to Taylor, asked
the rulers of their day to take a risk that wasnt really a risk, if one knew the efficacy of
Heaven. They were asked to focus not on political power and strength, but rather on a
return to the ways of moral virtue, particularly exemplified in the Sage-Kings of the
past. Because the moral nature of the individual was also the moral nature of the cos-
mos, getting into right relationship with Heaven would bring security, as the Way of
Heaven itself would act to bring all things into order. No action beyond proper relation-
ship to Heaven was needed. This Effortless Action would release moral virtue, resulting
in political security and well-being. The Sage way of life manifests the Way of Heaven
to the world, and since Confucianism had as its goal to transmit the Way, the deeds of
the Sages became the model for how the Way was to be taken up in the present.
Eventually, the Five Classics of Confucianism, which record the deeds of the Sages,
would be engraved in stone and become state orthodoxy.
Finally, let us look at Taylors account of the process of attaining sagehood in Neo-
Confucianism. For neo-Confucians like Chu Hsi, the classics are useful because they
have a philosophical capacity to revealthe underlying metaphysical structure
revealed in all things, called Principle (1990, 33). When one approaches the classics, it
is to be done for their value in self-cultivation, not as an exercise in philology. Since
the classics are the quintessential expression of Principle, they can penetrate to the
deepest layers of ones own nature and are useful for unravelingthe depth of a
persons moral and spiritual core, his true nature and mind (1990, 35). This view of
the classics and their role in transformation though implemented differently in
Neo-Confucianism than in classical Confucianism4 was rooted in the same cosmo-
logical view that played a role in classical Confucianism: the relation of Heaven to the
cosmos and to humanity. For Neo-Confucians, Heaven is the unifying structure of
the world; everything shares in it and is unified by it. Moral virtue unifies everything;
Heaven and earth are one body, and there can be no limit to Humanity when properly
cultivated in oneself.

4 Specifically, through an emphasis on meditational techniques in Neo-Confucianism that

distinguishes it from classical Confucianisms emphasis on ritual deference.
174 Appendix


Now that we have these four perspectives in view, what sense can we make of
Confucianism in light of the categories suggested by the emergence perspective devel-
oped in this book? First, we must note that there are many aspects of Confucianism
that seem to confound the discussion, and each confounding aspect acts as a mirror
suggesting what each of our authors implicit theory of religion is. One confounding
element is the fact that there seems to be an internal discussion within Confucianism
itself concerning whether transformation occurs from outside-in, as seems suggested
by a sociological strain of Confucianism, or from inside-out, as seems to be suggested
by an idealist strain of Confucianism.5 A second confounding element is that the
emphasis of classical Confucianism on the King and the State can be contrasted
with another strand in Confucianism emphasizing the importance of self-cultivation
in every individual.6 A third confounding element is the fact that the divine in
Confucianism developed in an impersonal direction, in an age where personal gods
were the norm.7 A final confounding element perhaps the most important is
the fact that in Confucianism the ontology of the Absolute the way the divine is
characterized seems to develop away from a pole of a pre-existing, stable, transcen-
dent other, and in the direction of a immanent, dynamic, patterning of the here-and-
now. I believe much of the difference in the accounts of Confucianism in the works
examined above can be seen to be based in commitments to one or another of these
poles as the basis for defining religion. And I suggest none of these in themselves are
relevant to the discussion of the status of Confucianism as a religious community.
To make this point, I want to take up this last confounding element in a little more
depth, as a proper understanding of decentering and its role in the teleodynamics of a
religious community can helpfully clear things up. To do this, the positions of Ames
and Ching must be contrasted, as I believe their differences lie in how they articulate
the ontology of the Absolute. Ames, as we have seen, tries to distinguish Confucianism

5 Fung (1966) argues that this debate first seen in the differences between Mencius and Hsun
Tzu, is at the heart of the Confucian discussion throughout the ages. Also, see Fingarettes
(1972, 4657) discussion of the difference between Ritual and Humanity in Confucius
thought for an outside-in perspective, and Taylors (1990, Chap. 4) discussion of spiritual
autobiography in Neo-Confucianism for an inside-out perspective.
6 Compare Taylors (1990, 7) and Fungs (1966, 215) discussion of the traditional place and
proper sphere of Confucianism in statecraft, to Tus (1986, 10) discussion of Neo-Confucian
concerns, where he states that the institutionalization of Confucianism was the loss of true
7 Note that in Fungs history of Confucianism (1966, Chap. 1), natural is largely equated with
impersonal, and superstition (and religion) with personal, and thus he argues that
Confucianism is philosophy, not religion.
Confucianism As A Test Case 175

from secular humanism, on the one hand, and a Western, Christianized religion on
the other. He argues that the Western model of religion, which relies on the worship of
the divine as something prior, independent, and external, is countered in Confucianism
by a model of religion where ordinary human experience, when properly lived, can be
the source of intense religious experience. But when it comes to discussing what reli-
gion and religious actually boil down to in terms of individual transformation, Ames
suggests the practice of Ritual is simply learned patterns of deference performed indi-
vidually and elegantly. Ritual unleashes the uniqueness of a participant as one engages
the aesthetic project of becoming a person, achieving a disposition, an attitude, a pos-
ture, and an identity. Ritual is personal performance, revealing ones worth to oneself
and ones community. Though Ames argues that the Confucian goal is towards an
immanent, here-and-now patterning of life that is religious, his account of how one
achieves this seems thoroughly mundane, a matter of self-perfection and the external
expression of aesthetic grace.
Chings account, on the other hand, so strongly emphasizes the interior and mysti-
cal nature of transformation in Confucianism the experienced reality of the will of
Heaven; the things of the spirit; the desire for something greater than [man]; a
higher consciousness; and the quest for sagehood, which can only be understood
with reference to the interior lifeand sometimes to mystical experience8 that one
wonders how any of the other authors weve examined could have had a different
opinion. The problem here, I think, is that her argument uses metaphors taken from
the original context of Confucianism, as well as from the Western audience she is
largely addressing. These metaphors suggest an ontological absolute, removed from
the here-and-now: a person (God) in a place (Heaven) and at a time (antedating
human experience). The absolute is distant from mundane human experience of the
here-and-now. However, contra Ching, as Confucianism developed against these char-
acterizations, its Dominant Symbols were transformed into metaphors involving a
dynamic patterned absolute, the Way. The Way is characterized as always present in
every moment of the here-and-now, though requiring a type of spiritual excavation to
be known.9 While Ching certainly notes the dynamic aspect of Confucian Dominant
Symbols,10 she seems to overstate the way interiority, and the distance it suggests from
the here-and-now, is necessary for Confucian spiritual practice; Confucian dominant
Symbols more naturally lead to an emphasis on embodied practice. In fact, Taylor notes

8 Ching (1986, 66, 69, 75, 79).

9 Fingarettes account (1972, 1624) of the chief metaphor of classical Confucianism the
Way is very helpful in understanding this.
10 Confucian mysticism enables the person to perceive the profoundly dynamic character
of the Heavenly principle within, the principle by which birds fly, fishes swim and human
beings love virtue (1986, 79).
176 Appendix

that Neo-Confucian debates concerning the value of meditation circled around the
tension between the distance from the here-and-now presupposed by interiority, and
the presentness that is the chief characteristic of the Way.11
So what does emergence theory add to this discussion? An implication of viewing
religious communities from the perspective of Rocha & Hordijks three criteria is
that the center of a religious community is the way ritual and myth produce decentered
consciousness. In other words, to use Taylors terminology, the way religious transfor-
mation occurs. And one crucial aspect of this process is the expectation of, and sub-
mission to, a hidden cause, which is the necessary precursor to decentering. The
critical point is if the Confucian Way is considered to exist in a way that is hidden from
normal consciousness, normal consciousness must be suppressed. The discipline of
self-cultivation required to attain sagehood must necessarily involve quieting and sup-
pressing aspects of human nature to allow the true, hidden nature of Humanity to be
expressed.12 So when Ames rightly explains how Heaven should not be thought of as a
place out there, but rather as an aesthetic manifestation here, but at the same time
doesnt acknowledge the hidden aspect of Heaven to normal experience, he misses the
role decentering plays in Confucian transformation. And when Ching rightly notices
the hidden nature of the Way to normal consciousness, but doesnt put enough empha-
sis on the immanent nature of that absolute principle, she can overstate the place of
mystical interiority in Confucianism.
This is why I think that Taylor, by placing emphasis on the nature of Confucian
transformation, places the emphasis in exactly the right place. It is not how myth exists
in its inert form that is most central to a religious community; what is central is the way
that it is taken up as a source of decentering, in its potent form. Seligman et al. and
Ames at least in the works we examined do not consider how Confucian myths
point to a divine Way hidden from normal experience, and this allows them to picture
Confucianism as a way to perfect certain social relations, relying on what one does to
and for oneself.
The way anomalous experience has been sympathetically treated in Confucianism
confirms that decentering is of profound importance to understanding it (and this in
turn demonstrates the usefulness of an emergence perspective to the problem). I have

11 See Taylor (1990, 94).

12 That quieting can occur in a multitude of ways in the Confucian tradition, both through
disciplined embodied action, as well as through meditation techniques. A full account of
this in Confucianism would be a project in its own right, but Fung, Taylor, Ching, and
Fingarette each suggest different ways that this self-quieting occurs. Note particularly
Chings discussion of dimunition, which strongly suggests Durkheims negative cult. Even
Ames account of how Confucius is portrayed in the middle chapters of the Analects
offers a perspective on this.
Confucianism As A Test Case 177

argued that anomalous experience is always at least invited through participation in a

religious community, through the way ritual and myth establishes non-material, hid-
den truths as real and authoritative. And while decentering does not require it, anoma-
lous experience can serve as the most spectacular demonstration of the efficacy of the
hidden world in bringing about religious transformation. Does Confucianism have a
place for anomalous experience? Scholars have rightly pointed to the ordinariness
that is claimed to be central to Confucian transformation; this, I think, provides the
impetus to the approaches of Seligman et al. and Ames, where ordinary meanings
are given to key Confucian terms. But the ordinariness referenced in Confucian
transformation is best thought of as the fact that the Way is to be found in ordinary
experience familiar experience such as family life and not that the Way itself is ordi-
nary. There has always been a component to Confucianism suggesting anomalous
experience of the Way. Confucius assumed a magic power13 that provided the basis
for taking a risk that is not a risk in his arguments for moral reform to the political
leaders of his day, and he stated that Heaven had given him his task. Mencius, one of
the leading initial interpreters of Confucius, speaks of the great flood of Spirit that
suggests a powerful experience during his meditative practice.14 And the expectation
of sudden enlightenment in Chu Hsi,15 exemplified in the spiritual autobiogra-
phiesof Neo-Confucian sages,16 demonstrates a friendliness to anomalous experience
in Neo-Confucian life. Taylor, trying to summarize the historical data on anomalous
experience in Neo-Confucianism, suggests that the basic view during this period was
that Confucian practice should not strive towards experiencing anomalous sudden
enlightenment, since ordinary self-cultivation is sufficient to produce Confucian trans-
formation. However, sudden enlightenment was considered a sign of the emergence of
Humanity, and a prelude to the correct application of ones moral efforts.17 I suggest
the reason Confucians throughout their history have been friendly to anomalous expe-
rience is that decentering allowing the hidden truths to be made manifest in indi-
vidual consciousness is part and parcel of the way Confucian myths are made
effective in Confucian life.

13 Fingarette, Ch. 1.
14 On this topic, Richey (2005) writes, It is [on the topic of the great flood of Spirit] that
Mencius is at his most mystical, and recent scholarship has suggested that he and his
disciples may have practiced a form of meditative discipline akin to yogaWhile faint
glimpses of what may be ascetic and meditative disciplines sometimes appear in the
Analects, nowhere in the text are there detailed discussions of nurturing ones qi such as
can be found in Mencius 2A2.
15 Fung, 3056.
16 Taylor, Ch. 4.
17 Taylor (1990, 11113).
178 Appendix

Okada as Example of a Confucian Sage

As a final example of the way Confucianism demonstrates Rocha & Hordijks three
criteria, let us consider Taylors account of Okada Takehiko, a Confucian whom he
knew and interviewed over a number of years.18 I will present Okada as a modern
Confucian seeking sagehood, defending Confucian myths for the sake of individual
transformation and social redemption. Taylor says that when he first met Okada, he
was struck by the difference between meeting a mere scholar of the tradition, and
meeting someone in whom the tradition lives. He says the distinction between these
two kinds of people is both obvious and hard to capture. He writes that Okadas con-
cern, instead of being primarily of academic interest, is for the plight of his genera-
tion, since he feels the world is in tremendous moral and spiritual decline (1990, 140).
This phrase suggests that Okada seems to be holding the world as he sees it to a univer-
sal standard, an absolute ideal, which he himself has embraced, and which the world
has fallen from. Okada tells Taylor that the solution to the moral and spiritual decline
he sees is the practice of Confucian meditation, a practice that he has long embraced.
Okada says that it is these kinds of practices that will provide a means to solve the
problems of the world in positive ways (1990, 141).
The reason Okada believes Confucian meditation to be a universally powerful
method of rectification can be gleaned from his comments on modern science. While
he supports the progress of science, he is disturbed by the lack of connection between
scientific and Confucian worldviews. But why would he think there should be a con-
nection between them? Okada refers to Chu Hsis view that human nature and the
laws of nature operate on the same principle, that there is a natural relationship
between them. The ethical nature of humanity as exemplified in Confucianism can
and should be extended to the nature of all things. And conversely, if a scientific world-
view fails to incorporate the ethical nature of humanity as part of nature itself, it will
misunderstand nature. This is a clear example that demonstrates Okada takes
Confucian myths to be true; a hidden reality is the ground for both cosmic and human
truths. But why would Okada be convinced that these particular myths are true, as
opposed to others? Isnt he aware that there are other cosmological viewpoints on the
world? And why would he think the ethical goodness of humanity is the true state of
things? Arent there other viewpoints on the true nature of humanity?
Okada answers both of these questions in the same way. He acknowledges there are
other positions on the true nature of the cosmos and humanity, but he appeals to the
deep inner transformation that Confucian meditation has given him, confirming the
truth of Confucian views. The goodness of human nature is not, for Okada, a product
of rational inquiry, but a product of insight produced by deep inner experience.

18 I am taking this from Taylor (1990, Chap. 9).

Confucianism As A Test Case 179

Through the introspective and meditational techniques of Confucianism, the true

nature of humanity and the cosmos can be found by anyone who responds to the
Confucian invitation to experience for themselves the goodness at the core of reality. I
believe these comments are an example of the way ritual and myth produce decenter-
ing, reveal hidden powers that solve existential problems, and provide the motives to
reproduce those myths. And though Okada does not specifically discuss it, Confucian
tradition asserts that as individuals en masse (or, depending on your account of
Confucianism, their enlightened leaders) pursue this non-mundane way of approach-
ing experience, the sociality that results will manifest the full flowering of the Way.
Okada, in response to a further question by Taylor, takes an argumentative tack that
confirms he is practicing Confucianism in a way conforming to the dynamics of a
metaperformative strange loop. When specifically pushed by Taylor on whether he is
advocating a universal Confucian way of salvation for all people everywhere, or merely
a return to religion in whatever manifestation it may appear, he responds by saying
that since he is concerned with respect for human life, his concern transcends particu-
lar religious traditions, even the particularity of Confucianism. So it seems he is saying
any religious tradition will do. But he goes on to say he thinks Confucianism is better
suited to provide the respect for human life he advocates, since its focus has always
been on humankind. In Humanity, the Way of Heaven is reflected most perfectly. Thus,
his overall argument, whether he recognizes it or not, is that the central concern of
Confucianism is in fact the central problem of humanity Confucianism is a solution
to the central ineliminable opposition of real human experience. In human behavior,
we see a tendency to disrespect true human nature, but that problem is mystically
resolved by discovering the Way of Heaven that is the real core of human nature. And
that makes Confucianism the best choice for solving the problem.
I suggest he believes this because he participates in ritual demonstrating his
submission to Confucian myths. This dynamic takes the particular interests of
Confucianism and translates them through his meditative experiences into the univer-
sal and proper view of things, and proposes solutions to the problems it indicates
taken from a repertoire of Confucian Dominant Symbols. From Okadas perspective as
a ritual participant, a Confucian response to this problem just happens to be the solu-
tion. So he can think that his response is not coming from a Confucian-centered
particularity, but rather from a pragmatic concern for solving a problem. What
he doesnt note is that Confucianism selects one perspective from a large number of
potential perspectives on human experience, makes it authoritative, and then offers
the best solution to the problem highlighted by that particular perspective.
This interpretation is further confirmed by a line of discussion between Okada and
Taylor that superficially seems to contradict this characterization. Taylor says Okada
believes we dont need to have Confucianism in the future, just a focus on the issue of
human dignity. This is because particular, historically-contingent Confucian doctrines
180 Appendix

may not withstand criticism; ancient teaching should not be a static embodiment of
authority.19 However, my take on this discussion is that Okada is merely renouncing a
fundamentalist approach to the textual tradition; what he clearly does not abandon is
the belief that the hidden world exists as the Confucian tradition says it does. In fact,
he seems so convinced the real world exists in the way the Confucian tradition says it
does, he doesnt feel the need to fight for the particularities of the actual, historical
Confucian tradition itself. Okada tells Taylor the essential Confucian teaching does
not need its own reification (1990, 147 italics mine).


Taylor says Confucian scholars such as Tu point to Okada an example of the living
Confucian tradition. And his account of Okada seems to confirm the expectations that
an emergent view of Confucianism would predict. To the degree that Okada represents
a lineage of Confucians who sought sagehood and built Confucian communities, going
back through the Neo-Confucians, Mencius, and ultimately to Confucius himself, we
can profitably talk about Confucianism as a religious community. I could point to other
aspects of the Confucian tradition that lead one to conclude it adheres to the formal
description of a teleodynamic social entity utilizing symbolic reference as a way to
encode social memory. Particularly noteworthy is the way the tradition evolved in its
cultural environment during the period of strong Taoist and Buddhist influences in
China. There, the evidence suggests the tradition, while maintaining its boundaries,
demonstrated intelligent variation, taking on ideas from other traditions in a particu-
larly Confucian way, supporting a flowering of New Confucianism.20
But I will finish Appendix with the observation that Ames account of Con
fucianism is strongly reminiscent of Lowenthals account of Haitian Voodoo, if we,
pace Ames, take account of Confucian decentering in the way I think the evidence
suggests. Ames, like Lowenthal, describes a particular aesthetic which binds together
individual self-expression and the community in which the full flowering of religious
life occurs. If we note the element of decentering Ames ignores, we see that a ritually-
authorized theological component the Way and its manner of manifestation in

19 This leads Taylor to equate Okadas position with the comment by Tu, concern for the
survival of the Confucian traditionmust be subsumed under a broader concern for
the future of humankind (Quoted in Taylor 1990, 147).
20 Particularly helpful in this respect is Fungs characterization of that history, Liors (2014)
account of Confucianism as a complex adaptive system, and Taylors account (1990,
Chap. 5), which seems permeated by a concern for both boundaries and creative responses
to challenges from without.
Confucianism As A Test Case 181

human nature Humanity links together the psychic and the social under particular
Dominant Symbols. This flowering of a religious way of life is reproduced as the
ineliminable oppositions of human life are mystically resolved through individual
transformation in the space created by a community organized around ritual and
myth. I suggest the overall arc of this section allows us to answer Nevilles question
about Confucianism in the affirmative the large-scale trajectory of its organizational
dynamics exhibits the characteristics of a symbolic social teleodynamic system.
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adaptive systems22, 44 consciousness of consciousnesses10, 131,

Alcorta, Candace82 139, 157
Ames, Roger168171, 174, 176, 177, 180 construction code67, 94, 99
ant colonies Csordas, Thomas39, 93
comparison with human sociality85
Ape Language Research57 Davies, Paul7, 18
Archer, Margaret38, 88 Deacon, Terrence4, 5, 7, 18, 19, 38, 4449,
Austin, J.L.27, 44, 72 5155, 57, 59, 66, 7779, 81, 83, 84, 86,
92, 93, 102, 147, 148, 161
Barbieri, Marcello55 speculates on emergent sociality19
Bateson, Gregory21, 55 decentering3342, 95102, 137, 141, 142,
Bechtel, William9 145, 149, 155, 159, 161, 162, 165, 174, 176,
Beckermann, A., H.17 179, 180
belief states142 definition of34
Berkeley, Bishop17 supported by metaperformativity35
Bickerton, Derek85 Dennett, Daniel4, 9, 44, 107, 114125, 136,
Bickhard, Mark47 142, 143, 145147, 150, 160
Blackmore, Susan113, 114 divine Beings and Ways
Bloch, Maurice143 definition of4
Boddy, Janice92 divine pre-existence
Boehm, Chris110 critique of1314
Boyer, Pascal37 DNA5, 52, 65, 78, 80, 138, 160
Boyle, Robert15 the referential capacity of52
Brown, Derren147, 148, 155, 156, 158, 160 domain-general reasoning75, 77
Dominant Symbols2427, 29, 36, 38, 41, 99,
Calvinism111 141, 144, 147, 165, 169, 175, 179, 181
Campbell, Donald47, 80 Durkheim, mile6, 810, 12, 74, 84, 87, 97,
Carpenter, James159 101, 102, 107, 110, 116, 117, 126140, 146,
Cary, Phillip151 149, 155, 157, 160, 161, 176
Cashman, Tyrone78, 147, 148 dynamically incoherent memory67, 94,
Chalmers, David17, 49 96, 102
Chase, Philip88 Dynamic Systems Theory64
Ching, Julia170172, 174176 Dyson, Freeman158
Cho, Francisca100
circular causal structure21, 50, 53, 65, 94, 101 Eddington, Arthur153
and social dynamics130 Einstein, Albert
Clayton, Philip44 views on religion148, 149
communitas Elder-Vass, Dave88
characterized by iconic reference8, 88 Eliade, Mircea9, 117
community of interpretation8, 8890, Ellickson, Robert110
99, 129 emergence
Comparative Religious Ideas Project4 challenges the machine metaphor46
conceptual blends75, 7779 compared to reduction4546
Confucianism10, 36, 43, 96, 165, 166, critiques of18
168176, 178180 defined by organization4, 7, 9, 45
Index 193

Durkheims view of religion as127 interpretants6062, 73

memory and4, 7 interpretant-vehicle6063, 9496
the philosophical question17, 160 Rosetta Stone example of61
religion, example of6, 93, 157 interpretation8, 25, 34, 36, 54, 5863, 66,
religion, life, and mind examples of3, 73 68, 69, 72, 8890, 92, 93, 98, 100, 154, 179
the scientific question17, 160 explanation of59
a type of naturalism3
types of7, 48 James, William33
emergent emotions147, 148 Juarrero, Alice44
encoded memory4, 32, 74, 102, 127, 160 Jung, Carl159
encoded social memory24, 32, 38, 92, 95, 138
Keane, Webb32
Fauconnier, Gilles75, 79 Kerby, Anthony85
Favareau, Donald5, 78 Kirkpatrick, Lee79
Fichte, Johann90 Knitter, Paul13, 14
Fingarette, Herbert174177 Krauthammer, Charles137
Fitch, W. Tecumseh84
Frankl, Viktor37 Lambek, Michael32
Freud, Sigmund159 least discordant remainder53
Fung, Yu-lan174, 176, 180 Lemba people11
linguistic construction of sociality
Gardner, D.S.93 characterized by indexical reference8, 38,
Geerts, Henri92 90, 91, 137
Geertz, Clifford31, 35, 143 Lior, Yair88, 180
genetic code5, 63, 65 Lowenthal, Ira40, 41, 97, 180
Gdel Incompleteness Theorem68, 70, 138
Gdel, Kurt6873, 102 Manchester, William87
Goodenough, Ursula44, 81, 83 matter
Grady, Joseph76 early modern metaphysics5
Griffin, David5 critique of1517
group selection107 going beyond17
Mayer, Elizabeth158
Hayden, Brian149 McClenon, James142
Hofstadter, Douglas4, 7, 44, 58, 63, 6769, McLaughlin, Brian18, 44
72, 73, 101, 138 McNamara, Patrick3335, 37, 97, 98, 145,
homeodynamics48, 53 149, 152
effects of language on human meme theory
sociality83 Dennetts memetic theory of religion121
explanation of48 religion and118
hypnotic suggestibility metaperformativity2732, 35, 37, 40, 41, 95,
and healing142 97, 98, 101, 102, 136, 142, 148, 162, 165
Mill, J.S.44
I Mithen, Steven75, 79
as iconic memory representing the monistic materialism15, 17, 160
community of interpretation67, 89, morphodynamics48, 50, 53, 84
90, 92, 162 effects of language on human
icons5456, 58, 59 sociality84
indexes54, 56, 58, 71, 78 explanation of50
as examples of associative learning56 feedback effect on self-narratives85
194 Index

multi-level selection theory107 an emergent self having conscious

Wilsons claim that it explains experience101
religion111 characterized by symbolic reference8
Murphy, Ronald145 cybernetics and6
myth as emergent cultural phenomenon12
adaptive because it has no concrete long-lived11
content21 naturalistic stance towards1315
in Rappaport24 Rappaports definition of23
relation to Ultimate Sacred Postulates and and the self, as nested emergent
Dominant Symbols27 systems125, 150
myth and ritual sui generis properties of6
are they evolved features?74, 112 religious experience
invited by metaperformativity35, 97
Nagel, Thomas5, 16 and McNamaras view of decentering34
Neville, Robert165, 166, 168, 181 Rappaports view of3031
niche construction Wildmans understanding of33
human culture the result of83 Richardson, Robert9
Nuremberg rally Richey, Jeffrey177
demonstrates numinousness32 ritual
in Rappaport22, 27
Okada, Takehiko Rappaports definition of27
example of a Confucian sage166, Rocha, Luis Mateus65
178180 Rocha, Luis Mateus and Hordijk, Wim
66, 94, 99, 100
Patil, Parimal152 three criteria for identifying symbol use
Pattee, Howard4, 5, 7, 44, 6367, 94, 99, 101 67, 74, 93, 94, 96, 99, 138, 165, 168, 176, 178
Paul, Robert28 Royce, Josiah87, 88, 129, 154, 157
Peirce, C.S.44, 5457, 5962, 70, 71
performative utterance27, 31, 35, 72, 73, 102 Sagan, Carl158
Peters, Richard6 San people11, 158
Plantinga, Alvin6 Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue57
Principia Mathematica68, 69, 73 Saver, Jeffrey33
problem of consciousness18, 162 Sawyer, Keith6, 127, 129
correlated with the problem of divine Searle, John72, 87, 90
activity19 Sekida, Katsuki152
Proudfoot, Wayne33, 35, 36 self reference
how it creates truth70
Quine, W.V.O.69, 102 self-simplifying7, 46, 47, 50
Seligman, Adam166, 168, 171, 176, 177
Rabin, John33 semantic closure44, 64, 65, 74, 93, 94, 101, 138
Rappaport, Roy6, 810, 12, 2027, 2932, 35, central to defining a self101
36, 3840, 42, 73, 74, 81, 82, 93, 95, semiosis54, 61, 63, 68, 78
97102, 107, 115, 116, 138, 142, 144, 150, semiotic5, 44, 52, 53, 57, 60, 61, 69, 92
160162 Shanafelt, Robert147
the great inversion115 Sherman, Jeremy51
Reid, Paul87 Shermer, Michael158
religion signs and signification5455
adaptive dynamics of29 Smith, Huston114, 158
an adaptive system like life22, 101 Smuts, Barbara B.81
Index 195

social control feature22, 109, 110 telos

ritual as23 teleodynamics defined by53
society therapeutic truth141, 144, 160
as emergent, according to Durkheim129 Thompson, Evan17, 19
Som, Malidoma159 totemism in Durkheim6, 127, 132136, 139
Sosis, Richard82 Towards a Science of Consciousness
specified absence38, 39, 41, 141, 144, 159 conference18
spiritual transducer
Dennetts definition of146 religious experience as39, 93, 96
spiritual map24, 32, 38, 92, 146, 154156, 159, transformation10, 11, 34, 96, 151, 152, 165,
160, 162, 166 168, 169, 172178, 181
Squier, Richard King100 Tumarkin, Nina22, 137
Stausberg, Michael1012 Turner, Mark75, 76, 79, 144
strange loop44, 67, 68, 101, 161, 179 Turner, Victor90, 92, 143
subjective experience4, 5, 20, 150, 153, 155, his conception of communitas89
157, 159, 161 Tutu, Desmond144
super-subjectivity151, 155, 156, 158, 159 Tu, Weiming174, 180
Augustine on the divine as151
Brahmanical Hinduism on the Ultimate Sacred Postulates24, 25, 2729, 35,
divine as152 99, 102, 141, 165, 169
Dharmakirti on the divine as152
modern physicists, on the divine as153 Van de Port, Mattijs159
Nasr, S.H. on the divine as151 Van Gulick, Robert48
Paul Tillich on the divine as151 von Neumann, John4, 7, 63
supervenience49 Voodoo10, 40, 180
symbolic reference5, 8, 5759, 64, 74, 75,
7779, 81, 9294, 180 Watanabe, John M.81
connection to the prefrontal cortex78 we intentionality90, 91
constitutes habits of symbol-users59 we narratives87, 88
human language and5 Winston Churchill, example of87
religion and5, 38 Wikstrom, Owe39, 93
symbols24, 25, 31, 54, 57, 59, 6469, 7174, Wilber, Ken153
79, 9396, 99, 128, 154 Wildman, Wesley33, 34, 98, 149
definition of57 Wiles, Janet81
Wilson, David Sloan11, 22, 44, 80, 107112,
Taylor, Rodney96, 172180 114116, 120, 121, 123, 125, 134
teleodynamics48, 51, 53, 86, 9294, 160, 174
effects of language on human