Monday, February 25, 2008

III. From Deconstruction to Reconstruction

Now that I have deconstructed the human cultural universals to show their evolutionary origins, we are left with the question of where this leaves us. If we can trace religion, and all the constituent parts of religion, to our extended sense of time, created by the recursive narrative-grammar structure of language, and the combination of these with various instincts we inherited from our ape ancestors, does that mean that is all there is to religion? No more than organic chemistry is all there is to biology. In the same way certain kinds of organic chemicals combine to create life, an emergent reality with properties unpredictable from mere knowledge of organic chemistry, religion is an emergent reality with properties unpredictable from mere knowledge of its constituent parts. Deconstructing religion the way I have allows us to see it has naturalistic, evolutionary origins in the same way biochemistry allows us to see how biology is related to organic chemistry. But if we want to study religion as religion, we must turn to theology, not to biology (or psychology); and if we are to study organisms as organisms, we must turn to biology, not chemistry. Biochemistry is one perspective on biology. One must look at many perspectives on an organism – its biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, population dynamics, anatomy, physiology, sociobiology, ecology, etc. – if we want to approach understanding the organism as a whole. But we must not deceive ourselves regarding the naturalistic origins of religion any more than we should deny our need for religion, or that its existence creates a reality any less real for being an emergent system constructed of parts having naturalistic origins (is biology less real for being an emergent system of certain kinds of chemistry? – to allow ourselves an anthropomorphic moment, biology has the same unreal reality to an amino acid as religion has to a human being). What it does allow us to do is be fully conscious of what religion is: a game (as all complex systems are in this sense games) with rules we can and do change. It can allow us to be more self-aware, to better know ourselves, so we can more actively select those emergent social realities that allow for greater complexity – remembering that knowledge of and about the constituents of a system does not allow us to predict the emergent properties of that system. As it turns out, we do have several religion-systems we can look at and compare. We can use comparative theology to compare the emergent religion-systems, and look at the parts of each of these systems, to understand the relationship between the parts and the system which emerges from their interactions, including the people through which they interact. We could then continue to evolve our religions, as they have evolved in the past, only more self-consciously, with more self-awareness. If we managed to create better religions, or better versions of already-existing religions, they would be naturally selected for, while failures would be naturally selected against. The important thing for any reformer to remember is that any change should be for greater complexity – any system requiring the elimination of a group of people for it to succeed is one that goes against the very purpose of religion, which is to create a more complex, more moral society. At the same time, we have to remember that the very fact religions are complex systems suggests they are in many ways similar to organisms. Like organisms, religions have typically fought each other to protect their territory (some have even fought such things as science, mistaking it for another religion). This is perhaps because they are too similar – those of the same species fight for territory. Dissimilar species tend to live together, creating an emergent (eco)system. We need to learn the various religions can be understood as ways to understand God – but which do not negate the claim of any one religion to understand God – in a way that gives an emergent system from the constituent parts, the current religious systems.

Another option is to embrace the naturalistic view, rejecting eschatology, divination, and luck superstitions in favor of understanding that the future is inherently unknowable, incalculable, undetermined, as chaos theory shows. As naturalistic explanations proliferate, we can do away with magic, and as we understand that permanency is an illusion of becoming through dissipative structures, we can do away with soul concepts too (not to mention all notions of permanency, of Being). While understanding the world through the naturalistic chaos-complexity theory espoused here could lead to these conclusions, I am not certain that most people would be willing to embrace such conclusions, since it goes against our instincts. We need certain falsehoods.

The falseness of a judgement is not for us necessarily an objection to a judgement; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent is it life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating. And we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgements (which include the synthetic judgements a priori) are the most indispensable for us; that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invested world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that renouncing false judgements would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life— that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil. (Nietzsche, BGE 4)

The other problem with this approach is that it is merely reductionist, deconstructionist – which means it cannot show us the value of having these instincts leading to religion. It cannot show us the emergent properties of the religion-systems that develop, it cannot show us their beauty.

Perhaps we can have a third option in an artistic understanding, one that allows for a world we now know to be in constant flux. In discussing the kinds of changes our landscapes are undergoing – including our relationships to those landscapes, from an idea that nature is unchanging to an idea that it constantly evolves, Frederick Turner, in “The Landscape of Disturbance,” explains the differences between the old view of nature, and the new, evolutionary one, which is also a new cosmological view and, potentially, a new religious view as well:

We are undergoing a major transition in our basic cultural model of the human relationship with the rest of nature. To sum it up in a sentence, it is a transition from a heroic, linear, industrial, power-based, entropic-thermodynamic, goal-oriented model, to a tragicomic, nonlinear, horticultural, influence-based, synergetic, evolutionary-emergentist, process-oriented model. The heroic model postulates a human struggle with nature culminating in human victory, while the tragicomic model postulates an ongoing engagement within nature, between the relatively swift and self-reflective part of nature that is human, and the rest. The linear model imagines one-way causes and effects; the nonlinear model imagines turbulent interactions in which the initiating event has been lost or is at least irrelevant. The industrial model requires a burning; the horticultural model requires a growing. The power-based model's bottom line is coercion; the influence-based model's is persuasion and mutual interest. The entropic-thermodynamic model involves an inevitable and irretrievable expense of free energy in the universe and an increase of disorder when any work is performed; the synergetic-evolutionary model seeks economies whereby every stakeholder gains and new forms of order can emerge out of far-from-equilibrium regimes. The goal-oriented model imagines a perfect fixed or harmonious state as its end product, and tends paradoxically to like immortal, open-ended narratives; the process-oriented model knows that the function of an ending is to open up new possibilities, and it prefers beginning-middle-end narrative structures; it knows that nothing in the universe is ever perfect and immortal, and that death comes to everything.

This evolutionary, artistic understanding is what we need in this case. We need unity combined with the plurality created by deconstruction. An artistic understanding helps us see the system as both unified and having parts that themselves can be understood. An evolutionary understanding helps us see these things are in time, and change, and have emergent properties as they combine. For any religion to survive, it will have to do away with eschatologies and teleologies containing notions of an unchanging reality, so the religions can better help us deal with the knowledge that there are no unchanging realities, only the appearance of permanence in dissipative structures.

Nonetheless, we can now see why we associate religion with wisdom: religion is the unified system whose parts are the individual people of that system, who are themselves bringing together various instincts to create the system. Religion is unified relative to us, the parts of the religion-system, and wisdom is seeing the world as unified. Religion (as well as philosophy) is associated with wisdom – it is one of wisdom’s primary domains. This is why art and literature were, until (post)modern times, associated with wisdom. And it explains the attraction of cultural explanations in that culture resembles religion. Each culture is an emergent system of the particular manifestations of the cultural universals, and as such can resemble a religion in its overarching ability to explain a variety of things. To this extent, culture is a religion for those who insist we are completely culturally determined. If we want a truly beautiful religion (or philosophy, or culture, or work of art or literature), it needs to deal with the connection between knowledge and wisdom, and the appearance of being in change.

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