Polymorphous Polytheism

[Meta note: This post builds on my previous post, Towards an Esoteric Naturalism, and will probably make more sense if you read that one first. Also, apologies for neglecting this blog for the past several moons. This was a very tricky post to write, and I got kind of disheartened halfway through by my lack of progress and set it aside for a bit, and then life happened and I didn’t get around to picking it back up until now. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.]

[Epistemic status: still exploratory. My goal here is to demonstrate a way in which one can look at the world, not necessarily to make confident statements about what one will find when one does.]

I.

Like many other science nerds of my generation, I had my metaphysical views radically restructured by a book by Richard Dawkins. Unlike most of us, however, for me the book in question wasn’t one of Dawkins’s atheist polemics, but rather The Extended Phenotype, his landmark treatise on evolutionary biology. This book ended up shifting my personal philosophy in a direction that is quite the opposite of what most people get out of Dawkins’s work. In The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins argues for a novel way of conceptualizing biological facts, in which the phenotype of a gene is seen as not just the physical or behavioral features of an individual organism, but as the totality of the effects of that gene on the world. These effects can manifest in the organism carrying the gene, in other organisms, or in the physical environment. Dawkins introduces this model as follows:

… the mental flip that I want to encourage can be characterized as follows. We look at life and begin by seeing a collection of interacting individual organisms. We know that they contain smaller units, and we know that they are, in turn, parts of larger composite units, but we fix our gaze on the whole organisms. Then suddenly the image flips. The individual bodies are still there; they have not moved, but they seem to have gone transparent. We see through them to the replicating fragments of DNA within, and we see the wider world as an arena in which these genetic fragments play out their tournaments of manipulative skill. Genes manipulate their world and shape it to assist their replication. It happens that they have ‘chosen’ to do so largely by moulding matter into large multicellular chunks which we call organisms, but this might not have been so. Fundamentally, what is going on is that replicating molecules ensure their survival by means of phenotypic effects on the world. It is only incidentally true that those phenotypic effects happen to be packaged up into units called individual organisms.

Dawkins goes on to show how the extended phenotype is the logical consequence of this gene-centric view of evolution. He explains three basic types of extended phenotype: organism artifacts; host-parasite interactions in which the host’s phenotype is altered by the parasite; and genetic “action at a distance”, in which a gene in one organism alters the behavior or morphology of a separate organism. All of these are examples of genes having effects that extend beyond the organisms carrying them. These effects can be logically considered part of the phenotype of the gene. Dawkins elegantly summarizes this idea as the “central theorem” of the extended phenotype: “An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.”

The extended phenotype takes the typical way of thinking about organisms and their genes and turns it inside out. The patterns created by the genes don’t stop at the physical boundaries of the organism itself – they extend into other organisms and into the rest of the surrounding environment. What struck me most when I read this is how radically it refactors our perception of the relationship between a pattern and the medium that carries it. The pattern – a gene and its phenotype – originates within a physical structure – the body of an organism – but the pattern is defined not by the boundaries of this structure, but rather by its relationship to its entire context.

Michel Foucault had a similar insight in a very different context. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, he writes:

The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network. And this network of references is not the same in the case of a mathematical treatise, a textual commentary, a historical account, and an episode in a novel cycle; the unity of the book, even in the sense of a group of relations, cannot be regarded as identical in each case. The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands; and it cannot remain within the little parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is variable and relative. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse.

1
The boundaries of the book, like those of the organism, have here become transparent. The meaning of the book isn’t contained purely within the book itself; it depends on a vast network of references and associations that extend to encompass the book’s entire sociocultural context. Again, the patterns that give a complex system its unique properties aren’t necessarily defined by what intuitively feel like the boundaries of the system.

II.

I promised last time that we would get to the gods in this post, and sure enough, we will. I’m sure some of you are expecting the punch line to be some cliché about metaphor, and are starting to zone out already, so let me reassure you now that that’s not quite where I’m going with this. Metaphor is part of the story, to be sure, but it’s by no means the whole of it. These gods are real – precisely as real as you and I are, in fact. Of course, you and I might not be as real as you think we are.

In the last post, we considered the soul as the pattern that defines a particular person’s individuality. That pattern is often assumed to reside exclusively within the brain of an individual, or at least somewhere within their physical body, but like the phenotype of a gene or the meaning of a text, it can’t be fully understood without reference to its full context. The patterns that make us who we are include things that we create in the world, our effects on other people, their effects on us – all things that exist outside our individual physical bodies. Our souls extend into the world around us. The brain isn’t exactly the “container” of the soul; it’s more like the central hub in the network of the soul.

If the soul of a human isn’t exclusively localized in their body, might there exist souls that aren’t localized in bodies at all – or at least not in what we typically think of as bodies? Might, say, a tree, or a mountain, or an ecosystem, or an abstract concept like creativity, be a person with a soul? In my opinion, yes. When I talk about gods and other spirits, this is what I mean – the souls of the cosmos; the other-than-human people who make up the natural world. To explain why, first we need to clarify what we mean when we call something or someone a person. There seem to be a few distinct things we might be talking about: consciousness, agency, or inherent value. Let’s take these one at a time.

Consciousness is the hardest one for me to talk about, if for no other reason than it’s the one I understand the least. It’s a fiendishly difficult concept to define, but a few workable if vague definitions are that something or someone has consciousness if they are aware of their existence, if they are aware of their own awareness, if they have subjective experience – if there is something which is it like to be them. Are trees and mountains and ecosystems and abstract concepts conscious? The honest answer is that I don’t know – it’s pretty hard to look at a complex system from the outside and know whether information is flowing through it in a way that constitutes self-awareness. If they do have consciousness, it’s definitely a profoundly different form than our own human consciousness. I will say, though, that when I pray to the gods or commune with spirits, I definitely feel like I’m interacting with another consciousness. One could, of course, argue that I’m interacting with another part of my own consciousness, which is entirely possible and is in fact how I initially conceptualized these experiences. But as we discussed earlier, the boundary between oneself and one’s environment is rather tenuous. If we don’t draw the boundaries of the self at the walls of one’s skull, then is there really a difference between interacting with a part of my own consciousness that I’m not typically aware of, and interacting with a consciousness separate from my own?

What about agency? Do trees and mountains and ecosystems and concepts have agency – that is, do they have the capacity to take autonomous action? Well, let’s flip the question around – do humans have agency? It’s a bit of a trick question, because the answer depends on what level of resolution we’re looking at. On the level we’re most familiar with – the level in which humans are the basic unit of consideration – humans obviously do have agency. We make decisions; we set goals; we take actions towards those goals. But if we zoom in to the level of the cells in our bodies, then human agency becomes much less obvious. Cells take various actions of their own – neurons transmit electrical impulses; muscle cells contract and release; red blood cells move oxygen around, et cetera – and every action the human takes becomes an emergent property of these interactions between cells.

(And this includes not only the human cells, but also the countless bacterial cells within every human body – should those cells then be counted as part of the human being? There’s that tenuous boundary between the self and the other again!)

((And don’t even get me started on mitochondria.))

Or, let’s zoom out again, beyond the level of the individual human and all the way to the level of social groups. Here the agency of the human disappears again, but this time, rather than being broken down into the actions of smaller agents, it is itself subsumed into the structure of other, larger agents. Agency, it would seem, exists in the map rather than the territory, and it’s possible to view just about anything as an agent if we choose the right level of focus. This applies to humans, and it applies to trees and mountains and ecosystems and abstract concepts, and it applies to the rest of the cosmos.

(For a much longer and more detailed exploration of the concept of agency as applied to the non-human world, I highly recommend the essay Patterns of Refactored Agency by Mike Travers over at Ribbonfarm.)

Finally, as for inherent value, there’s not much to say. Either you feel that the non-human parts of the universe have inherent value, or you don’t, and I do.

My perspective here is, in my opinion, a theistic one, but it’s a strange sort of theism – one that probably looks a bit like atheism if you squint at it. If you assume, as so many people seem to, that only the most ontologically basic levels of reality can be meaningfully said to exist, then by this definition the gods don’t exist. I don’t dispute this, and so one could reasonably accuse me of crypto-atheism. But if we accept this premise, then we have to conclude that humans don’t exist either, and neither do most of the features of reality we are used to interacting with. On the other hand, we could accept, as I do, that things don’t stop existing just because they’re made of other things or because their boundaries are fuzzy, and that humans (and tables and chairs and rocks and trees and animals and so forth) can be meaningfully said to exist – and so can gods.

III.

I’ve all but said it outright at this point, so I suppose this is as good a place as any to explicitly mention that I’m a pagan. Contemporary pagans are often, though not always, polytheists, and tend to divide polytheism into “hard” and “soft” varieties, where “hard” polytheism is the belief that the gods are literal, discrete, specific beings, and “soft” polytheism is… well, everything else. The two most common versions of soft polytheism hold that the gods are archetypes within the collective consciousness of humanity, or that the gods are aspects of some overarching divine unity (or in some cases a divine duality, such as the God and Goddess of many forms of Wicca2). Other common metaphysical views in contemporary paganism include animism – the idea that everything that exists is a being with a soul – and pantheism – the idea that the universe as a whole is equivalent to God(dess)/divinity.

Which kind of pagan am I? This may seem like a bit of a cop-out, but honestly, I’m most of the above. I believe everything that exists has both a material and spiritual existence – hence animism. I see divinity as immanent in, and equivalent to, the natural world – hence pantheism. I believe that different aspects of this divine natural world can be modeled as different beings and interacted with in different ways – hence polytheism. And my particular brand of polytheism is somewhere in the middle of the hardness scale, though definitely closer to the softer end. While I see the different gods and spirits as meaningfully different from each other, I consider these differences to be fluid, nebulous, and subjective. One worshipper may experience two gods as aspects of the same being, while another may experience them as two distinct beings, and they can both be right, because the boundaries between these gods are are a feature of our experience of them rather than an objective truth. Likewise, I’m not too interested in arguing about whether the gods are “literally” real – the cosmos is as real as anything can be, and the gods are the patterns I see within that cosmos, and that’s enough for me.

This, then, is the kind of paganism I practice – a naturalistic, animistic, pantheistic, profoundly polymorphous polytheism.


1. Thanks to my beloved fiancée Talia for tipping me off to this Foucault quote.

2. From what little I know of old-school initiatory Wicca, it seems that they originally held that their God and Goddess were a specific pair of deities whose names were taboo outside of ritual, and who were not necessarily the only deities in the cosmos, but this nuance mostly got lost when the religion got open-sourced.

CITATIONS:

Dawkins, Richard. The Extended Phenotype. Oxford University Press, 1982, Oxford, U.K.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith, Vintage Books, 2010, New York, NY.

Towards an Esoteric Naturalism

[Meta note: I didn’t really keep up with writing this blog during 2018, but it’s a new year now and I’m determined to get back on track. My current plan is to update this blog once a month at the New Moon.]

[Epistemic status: Exploratory. More an outline of a model than an exposition of facts. Probably reinventing several wheels here.]

I.

Since this blog is just getting started, I want introduce a couple of important points that will provide context for much of what I’d like to discuss in the future. First, I am an avowed naturalist (in the ontological sense, not in the sense of natural history, though that kind of naturalism is also wicked cool). Second, I am probably going to be frequently talking about things like gods, souls, and spirits. I realize that this is likely to confuse people. This post and next moon’s post are my attempt to square this circle. In this post, I’ll be discussing what naturalism means for the nature of the soul. Next time, I’ll explore what I think this implies about divinity. (Spoiler alert: a lot of ancient cultures might have understood things better than we usually give them credit for.)

Let’s start with the easy parts. What do I mean by “naturalism”? The most common definition of ontological naturalism is that it is the position that nature is all that exists; or conversely, that everything that exists is part of nature. This has always seemed a little tautological to me, though — what, exactly, would it mean for something to exist but not be a part of nature? A more precise definition, which as far as I can tell was proposed by Richard Carrier, is that naturalism is the position that the most ontologically basic level of reality is nonmental. That is, any mind — anything capable of thinking, feeling, and perceiving — is on some level made of or caused by things that are not minds, and it cannot exist without them. Supernaturalism, by contrast, is the position that mind is ontologically basic, and cannot be reduced to nonmental things.

Naturalism has always made more intuitive sense to me than supernaturalism — after all, complicated things are typically made up of simpler things, and a mind is one of the most complicated things that there is. But my goal in this essay isn’t necessarily to argue for the naturalistic point of view over the supernaturalistic one — you’ve probably already made up your mind about that one way or another, and in any case there’s not much I could contribute there that better writers haven’t already covered ad nauseam. Rather, I’m going to be taking naturalism as a starting point, and exploring some of the weirder things that can be found lurking within a naturalistic ontology.

In my experience, most people on both sides of the naturalism/supernaturalism divide tend to assume that naturalism necessarily implies atheism. For a long time I agreed, but lately I’ve come to regard this assumption as representing a distinct lack of imagination.

II.

In his book A Guide for the Perplexed (not to be confused with The Guide for the Perplexed or A Guide to the Perplexed, which are entirely different books), E.F. Schumacher makes the following critique of naturalism, which he refers to as “materialistic Scientism” (a term which I rather resent, but that’s neither here nor there)1:

With the rise of materialistic Scientism, finally, even the soul disappeared from the description of man — how could it exist when it could be neither weighed nor measured? — except as one of the many strange attributes of complex arrangements of atoms and molecules. Why not accept the so-called “soul” — a bundle of surprising powers — as an epiphenomenon of matter, just as, say, magnetism has been accepted as such?

Contra Schumacher’s title, I personally feel more perplexed after reading this. Schumacher doesn’t really argue against the naturalistic viewpoint; rather, he states it and seems to expect his readers to find it self-evidently absurd. Yet I’m not at all sure why this should be the case. What, precisely, is lost when we treat the soul as an epiphenomenon of matter? I’m not asking rhetorically; I genuinely don’t know, and neither Schumacher nor any other supernaturalist writers I’ve ever read have managed to tell me. (If any supernaturalists are reading this and want to chime in in the comments with an answer, you’re more than welcome to!)

Schumacher and the other supernaturalists seem to assume that something without a fixed identity can’t properly exist — that if something is divisible and hence transient, it isn’t really real. And if something isn’t real, then to them it can’t be meaningful in any existentially relevant sense. If the universe is made of matter, then matter must be all that matters (pun semi-intended), and the entire project of spirituality goes out the window.

As you can probably guess, I reject this view. I consider every level of existence to be equally real, and I don’t see transience as an obstacle to meaning. If the human soul is ultimately composed of “complex arrangements of atoms and molecules”, this doesn’t in any way diminish the significance and the extraordinary capacities of the human soul. All it means is that these are ultimately the extraordinary capacities of atoms and molecules. Accepting a naturalistic worldview doesn’t mean rejecting the existence of the soul or the possibility of spiritual meaning; it just means that these things have to take place on a higher level of ontological compositionality than they’re typically assumed to.

This does, however, still raise an important question: if the soul isn’t ontologically basic, then what exactly is it? It may be an epiphenomenon of matter, but what in practice does this mean?

III.

For our first attempt at an answer, let’s consider the following dialogue between a Christian missionary and a young indigenous man from Papua New Guinea (quoted in The Worship of Nature by James G. Frazer):

I began something in this way. ‘Your people say that everything has its own soul, but they also say that when a tree is felled its soul is expelled.’ He replied, ‘That is so.’ ‘Well, then,’ I asked, ‘how can this table have a soul, seeing that when the tree was felled from which its timber was sawed, the tree soul fled to another tree habitat?’ I can recall the image of that lad’s face as I write; it beamed with amused interest as he put this question, ‘How could it be here as a table if it had not a soul inside it to hold it together?’ I did not regard that as a poser, and replied, ‘It is here as a table because skilled men sawed the timber from a felled tree, cut it into lengths, shaped them into legs and top, nailed and glued the parts together, and it is held together by glue and nails, not by a soul.’ A Papuan does not contradict any one whom he regards as a chief. He could not even seem to confuse me, or in any way to suggest that my ignorance was palpable to him. He stooped down, got under the table, drew his finger-tips [sic] along the planks, came from under the table, stood up, drew quite near to me, held the finger-tips so that I could see them plainly and said, ‘Those tiny pellets you can see under my finger-nails came from the table, others will fall from it like them, and so the table will go on wasting until it will crumble away altogether; then, and not till then, its soul will flee away and it will no longer be a table.’ It was my turn, but I had nothing to say; only much to think about, to marvel about. He had not done, however, until he had given me what he considered the most conclusive evidence of the presence of soul in things. Again he stretched his right hand towards me and said, ‘Each of those little pellets between my finger-nails has its soul; if it had not we could not see it, it could not be.’ Such were his views of the omnipresence of soul.

Now, I’m no expert in traditional Papuan philosophy, and it’s coming to me filtered through a couple layers of Dead White Male rather than straight from the source, so I could be totally misunderstanding this. But I think what the Papuan guy is getting at here is that, in his ontology, the concept that corresponds most closely to the English term “soul” refers to pattern rather than substance — the shape and structure of things rather than the stuff they’re made of. The soul of the table is whatever patterns give it its particular tableness. Likewise, my human soul is whatever patterns give me my particular humanness.

This view of the soul may take some getting used to, since it’s radically different from the more common view that treats soul as something separate from matter. But I think it neatly resolves a perennial question that the typical dualistic view struggles to answer: by what means does the spiritual world of the soul interact with the physical world of matter? When soul and matter are treated as completely ontologically separate, it’s hard to come up with a satisfactory explanation of how the one can have an effect on the other. But this naturalistic perspective is able to unask the question: spirit and matter are able to interact because there was never any separation between them to begin with. Everything that exists has both substance and pattern, and thus is simultaneously material and spiritual.

This “omnipresence of soul” (in the words of Frazer’s bewildered missionary) has profound implications for humankind’s place in the cosmos, and for what other sorts of beings might share that cosmos with us. In next moon’s post, we’ll investigate what those implications might be, by means of a detour to a rather unlikely source.

 

1. This term bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, I find “materialist” to be a highly misleading term, as it can refer either to ontological naturalism or to the belief that only material things are meaningful or important, and (as this essay will hopefully make clear) I think the former in no way implies the latter. Second, “Scientism” is pretty much just a straight up insult. It refers to the attitude that the natural sciences are the only valid form of intellectual inquiry, which I don’t agree with and neither do most other naturalists.

CITATIONS:

Schumacher, E.F. A Guide for the Perplexed. Harper & Row, 1977. New York, N.Y.

Frazer, James George. The Worship of Nature. Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1926. London, U.K.