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.