Philosophy of Life, Meaning, Religion, and Everything
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A System of Systems: The Future Evolution of Religious Meaning
Behold the system. Human social systems are a complex set of interacting systems across time and space; made up of the actions, thoughts, interactions and communications of many individual people. They are of at least a comparable level of complexity as the natural systems we see around us, the biological ecosystems, and the physical systems of the known universe. If we can grow to have faith in a natural world guided by God's grace and will, as in an unknowable but logically inferred reality; then why can we not grow to have faith in a complex evolutionary process of human social systems which, though surely made up of "only" the collective human actions and communications of a large number of individuals, nonetheless is guided in its complexity by an unknown and unseeable Hand?
In order to see this on the most appropriate level, it is necessary to observe the human social systems at a level somewhat higher than that of an individual person; just as, in order to study the atomic nature of matter, one must look at things on the atomic scale of things, or, in order to study the galaxies, one must have the broad perspective appropriate to galaxies of stars.
It has been remarked that the view of Earth from Space has permanently and radically altered the perception we humans have of Earth and our presence on it. I believe there is some truth to this; the beautiful pictures of a blue planet taken from orbiting satellites are an undeniable challenge to us, and these pictures stir our emotions and help us to take a broad perspective on our shared heritage. In order to think about human social systems, we need a change in perspective, but not so radical a one as from a spacecraft in orbit. After all, from orbit the works and activities of man mostly disappear. Rather, we need to look at large scale human interactions from a perspective higher than eye-level, but not nearly so high as from earth orbit. If one imagines the cities of humanity spread out as in a panoramic plane below one's point of view, but still close enough to discern individual people on a very miniature scale, one approaches the perspective I have in mind, and that I would like for the reader to keep in mind as she reads this chapter.
From this scale and this perspective, individuals still matter, but the broad social interactions of large numbers of people matter more, creating the cities, hubs of activity, and large scale social movements. It is on this level of viewpoint that religions unfold. Religions are large scale social movements, unfolding in the interactions of large groups of people over an extended period of time.
Being social in nature, religious movements naturally require the relative agreement of large numbers of people over an extended period of time. In order to achieve this large scale human cooperation, religious principles must be flexible enough to be adopted by a wide swathe of people of differing dispositions; but successful religious principles, or memes, must also contribute to the social solidarity necessary to hold society together for the common good. To some extent, religion is the glue which holds human societies together.
It is one of my conjectures that religious impulses are hard wired into the human brain by genetic coding. This coding, if it exists, must have evolved over long periods of time, and it must have been favorable to the successful adaptation of human populations; it may even be that there has been a trade-off, in human evolutionary history, between individual adaptation and group, or social adaptation. If so, then surely religious impulses must have been selected because they fostered the greater stability and survival rate of groups, not individuals. To some extent, it was "genetically" to the advantage of an individual to sacrifice his own welfare or existence in favor of the more important survival of the group of which he was a part. Given this religious heritage in our genes, we can no more abandon religion than we can abandon human nature; so it is best to thoughtfully adapt our religious instincts to a modern reality.
When one contemplates the evolution of religious impulses in human individuals, and the co-evolution of religious norms amongst human population groups, it becomes apparent that it must have been a process involving numerous compromises; compromises between individual good and group good; compromises between alternative value-systems, and diverse methods of promoting group cohesion, cooperation, and survival. Thus religion is by its very nature both forward looking, and continually evolving towards better religious mechanisms. Trade-offs no doubt were made. Compromises were effected. What emerged slowly over time was an imperfect (by today's standards) but continually improving mode of thinking and acting in accordance with an evolving religious ethos.
I surmise that religion plays a specific role in human mental machinery which is indispensable. To be precise, the human animal, the first to think clearly, logically, and temporally, that is, towards the future, was faced with the dilemma of making sense of it all. Even on a day to day basis, the human mind's greatest strength was pattern recognition, prediction, analyzing, projecting, and surmising. While the human mind evolved to make forecasts based on inputs from the senses, it was also necessary to prepare mental frames of reference in which to stage the mind's work. These frames of reference grew more and more complicated and sophisticated, eventually requiring that the human mind make tentative but important attempts to see the "big picture", so to speak. I suggest this was the original root of religious instincts, the attempt to use the mind to make a best guess as to what the human's life and world were all about; in order to make more successful day to day assessments of alternative courses of action, and eventually to build the cohesive social groups which were the hallmark of humanity's most successful adaptations. Mankind is a social animal.
Mankind is a meaning making machine. Human societies are meaning generating mechanisms of great sophistication. Rather than ridicule the early attempts at the construction of meaning, which to our eyes may appear primitive, we should wonder at the glorious breakthrough which made meaning making social systems necessary and emergent.
All human societies have had religion. By the term religion, I am referring to that overall sense of reality and the big picture which makes the life of any social group cohesive, goal oriented and adapted towards survival.
Even in relatively primitive human societies, there are always explanations, social rules, mores, and codes of honor which guide the group, hold it together , and give meaning to the lives of its participants. As civilizations dawned and grew more complex, certainly religions grew equally more complex. There has been a continual process of meaning-construction going on since prehistoric times. This meaning is socially constructed, but real in the most important way that something can be real for human beings.
All civilizations were founded with religious underpinnings. Of course, religions, like civilizations, grow and sometimes die; forming an intellectual and ontological compost from which new civilizations often sprout. Often, these new civilizations are more complex and take root in earlier ideas while expanding them to meet new conditions.
Our situation today is most interesting. For perhaps the first time in human history, at first glance, it might appear that humanity is outgrowing its need for religion. The ultra-successful scientific paradigm appears to offer a non-religious meta-meaning structure, which in its extreme forms at least, is atheistic. Certainly some propose that we have outgrown our need for religion.
It seems apparent to me however, that our scientific paradigm is itself rooted in our religious instincts. The scientific method is , after all, looking for ultimate answers and to tie together loose intellectual ends. And it is most successful. The scientific and rational revolutions springing forth out of the Great Enlightenment are two of the greatest achievements of humanity's long history and are to be cherished.
But taken to extremes, the scientific paradigm still leaves ultimate questions unanswered, for as we solve one level of complexity, a new , more difficult level always emerges, like a child's computer game extravaganza. It would seem that there is still a need for the religious principle to function for group cohesiveness and to provide the meta system of meaning, the underlying best educated surmise as to the ultimate matrix of reality. But this religious principle must always be in accordance with and in partnership with the scientific paradigm itself.
We can not go back to barbarism and superstition. Neither can we profitably exist in a scientific-only mental universe with no shared values and no best guess conjectures as to what is the meaning of it all. We are meaning making creatures. We will seek meaning.
The attempt to allow no meanings other than scientifically generated ones leads to scientific dogmatism as surely as do its religious cousins. For in the absence of any meaning or value system other than science, we are still left gaping at the unknown. The human mind, and more importantly the human social systems, always fill the unknown with best guesses. Otherwise the social group can not function properly because nihilism and ennui result. The current extreme form of scientific atheism is every bit as dogmatic as any religion, and is in fact a religious mindset in and of itself. It is the religion of scientific totalitarianism.
Science plus religion are much better than religion alone; and science plus religion are much better than science alone. But the religion must be a new religious formulation which is compatible with science and in harmony with reason.
So religions evolve and improve. But, like the quantum states of matter, the evolution of religions is somewhat discontinuous in that there are periodic quantum jumps in state to new religious levels of understanding. These are associated with the appearance of new prophets who bring with them new religious revelations.
The appearance of a new religious revelation marks a quantum jump forward in religious understanding. But of course this new understanding is never perfect. And thus, hard as it is for us to see, eventually all revelations must be updated and upgraded by new prophets, as human individuals and societies become capable of a greater degree of understanding.
Thus it is that, in looking back at previous religious eras, we sometimes cringe at what we see. For instance, in the Old Testament we find an understanding of God which is, to our eyes, overly anthropomorphic, and a level of moral comprehension which seems primitive and sometimes downright evil. Who can read of the God of the Old Testament commanding the extermination of whole towns and tribes of people, including men, women, and children, without cringing at the unfairness of it all? No doubt, when future generations look back at our own era, they too will find our level of understanding primitive and backwards. But so it must be since we are after all fallible human beings living in fallible human societies. The great prophets can only bring to us that which we are capable of receiving at a given point in time.
Thus, while we may cringe even at more recent religious history, as in where, for instance, both Christianity and Islam were too often advanced by the power of the sword, and as atrocities were committed in the name of religion; nonetheless we find a large Islamic population, a large Christian population, a large Hindu population and a large Buddhist culture, waiting to be transmuted and transcended. It was no doubt necessary for this culture-compost to be in place, in order for a new synthesis to emerge. We can only wonder at the seeming necessity that evil has had its part in our human past, and do our best to withstand evil now and in the future. We can no more right all of the wrongs of the past than we can grow an entirely new "religion" without roots in the past.
For religion, the continually evolving product of our meaning making instincts, is historical in nature. Mankind is a meaning making machine. Our societies are meaning making devices. And I submit that, even with all of their imperfections, they are the best meaning making devices yet known to the universe.
What is meaning? To some extent, it is the product of our evolution, genetically and culturally. Genetically, because we are only able to comprehend that which is encoded into our genetic heritage, which no doubt encodes more meanings than we can imagine, the meanings necessary to survival, which included ultimately the necessity to create logical human brains capable of improving ethical and social capabilities. Culturally, because the only truth we can know is socially constructed in a long evolutionary process.
How do we recognize truth? While it may not be an absolutely perfect procedure, we recognize truth because it corresponds with our innate mental patterns of truth-recognition. We also recognize truth by the very historical weeding-out process which is ever present and as old as our species; nay, as old as life itself.
Truth may be relative, but it is still the most important thing we know. What kinds of truth can we recognize? Truth is composed of that which is true, or factual; that which is good, or virtuous; and that which is beautiful. The true, the good, and the beautiful.
Science is most useful in helping us determine the true for a large class of facts. Religion is most helpful in helping us determine the good. And both the true and especially the good are beautiful. Thus we find the greatest artistic flowerings often coming from religious roots. We humans find virtue to be inherently beautiful.
Of all three kinds of truth, perhaps the good is the most important. That is why all the prophets, and all the religions focus so much on virtue, goodness, and rightness of character.
Religion is a historical process of socially constructed, integrative exploration of reality. Religion is ultimately oriented towards the far future, from which we are pulled as if by a most beautiful and strong chaotic, strange attractor. This Omega Point in the ultimate future influences the present most strongly. As we heed its powerful force, we are indeed in the process of actualizing the already subliminally present Kingdom of God.