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An Emergent God

  1. May 13, 2009 #1
    I've been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon of emergence. Basically, where a system exhibits properties that no individual elements of that system possess.

    For instance, water possesses myriad properties that could not be directly inferred from examining a single water molecule in isolation. One could never infer the properties of ice or steam or surface tension from a single molecule, but when a large number of these molecules are placed together to form a system, these properties all emerge from the whole.

    The same is true is human social constructs. If you were some hypothetical observer who met only one human, you would never infer the global economy from that meeting. However, put enough people together, and these systems start to form. Economies, religions, states, nations, etc.

    The interesting thing about emergent systems is that the individual elements of the system all contribute to affect the system as a whole, but the system affects the individual elements as well, seemingly without direct influence from any one element.

    Our consciousness is a prime example. We can identify and catalog every individual part of our body, but no single part is indivisibly "us". We have almost no control of our individual autonomous body functions, yet we have direct control over the actions of our body as a whole. We can take direct action (as the emergent system) that can positively or negatively affect the well-being of our individual parts, like smoking or crashing a car. Alternately, our parts can take actions that can inevitably affect the system as a whole, like a rogue cancerous growth.

    This idea that the influence can go both ways, both up and down the hierarchical structure of the system, is what interests me when thinking about the social construct of religion.

    Now, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I'm not espousing an opinion on the validity of anyone's beliefs. I'm just interested in examining the properties of religion as a social construct, and the possible implications and effects of that system on the elements that make it up - people.

    Religion as a system seems uniquely suited for self-preservation.

    Perhaps the one common trait of most, if not all, humans is a fear of death and the unknown. Every major religion I'm aware of addresses this issue in some form or another, which presents an almost irresistible incentive. With this uncertainty taken care of, the burden and tragedy of everyday life can seem manageable. Once this is accepted, there is very little incentive to reject this notion, because the alternative is unthinkable.

    In addition, religion possesses mechanisms for reproduction and mutation. Missionaries, evangelists, crusaders, family traditions - all mechanisms for continued reproduction. Splinter groups and sects form constantly - mutations. Some form and disband in a relatively short time, but others are more successful and flourish, like Islam and Christianity.

    These now distinct religions then compete with one another for supremacy or survival, just like competing life forms. We've seen this happen for thousands of years. In Egypt and Greece, we can find the fossilized remains of two religious systems that must have seemed all-powerful at the time.

    This brings me to my main point.

    Say we have some hypothetical population of a few million people. For the sake of argument, there is no actual divine influence being exerted upon this population from an actual deity. However, these people have a very clear idea and understanding of the deity that they worship, regardless of its actual existence. They have rules covering virtually every aspect of their daily lives which are derived in part or in whole from the teachings of this deity, and each tries to live their life accordingly.

    With enough people and a complex and stable religious social construct, is the influence of this imagined deity in any way distinguishable from the influence of an actual deity? If everyone is acting in the way that they perceive this deity would desire them to act, then has the emergent system exerted its influence on the population in the same manner a real deity would desire to do so?

    In short: If God didn't already exist, did we create Him in a way that can still affect the course of human events in a very real way?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 14, 2009 #2
    Yes, religion has a cultural and biological free floating rationale and history. This is described in detail in such books as

    "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer
    "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena" by Daniel Dennett.
    "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" by Scot Atran
    "Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society" by David Sloan Wilson

  4. May 14, 2009 #3
    Without taking a week off to tackle your reading list, I have no idea which part, if any, of my argument you're actually addressing. If this is confirming the evolutionary/biological analogues that I presented, then you glossed over my entire point.

    Let me distill this as simply as I possibly can:

    Is it possible that right now, as we speak, human actions are being influenced in a very real way by a "god" which is entirely the product of an emergent system?
  5. May 14, 2009 #4

    Don't worry, The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a tolerant and forgiving God!

    Now seriously, you should know by now that in principle anything is possible. But... until we have evidence of such phenomena, it's mere speculation, unfounded or otherwise. This brings up another question - why would such a God hide from its creations? Or if we aren't his creations, but he is our creation as you assert, why would you call such errr... entity God? If i dream up making a bank robbery, should this be considered a real emergent robbery for which i should be penalised according to the law?
  6. May 14, 2009 #5
    If you imagine a bank robbery, it's just a fantasy.

    If EVERYONE thinks that you are a bank robber, then for all intents and purposes, you ARE a bank robber.

    This is why I used quotes "god". Obviously this phenomenon doesn't possess any supernatural powers or exist in any literal sense, any more than the United States exists as anything other than an agreed upon social construct.

    There's nothing about creation here, and there's no "hiding" going on. The relationship between the elements doesn't work that way. Can you "hide" your consciousness from your toes? Can you directly communicate with your pancreas?
  7. May 14, 2009 #6

    Could you expound on the reasons behind this statement?

    There is an exact word for this and it isn't "God". It's mass hysteria and is fairly common in societies subjected to religious or other types of propaganda.
  8. May 14, 2009 #7

    I'm curious about something you said. How do you define evidence?
  9. May 14, 2009 #8
    We could easily substitute "bank robber" for almost anything. "President of the USA" is a good one. The power wielded by this position only exists when everyone agrees upon the fact that the person possesses the power. Otherwise, it's just some guy.

    Same with your "bank robber" status. If everyone agrees that you are a bank robber, then you will be treated as such. You will still have the personal knowledge that you never actually robbed a bank, but what good will that do you? Who will you tell, when everyone "knows" that's what you did? You will live the life of someone who robbed a bank (prison, ridicule, etc.), and when you die, you will be remembered as a bank robber.

    I hesitate to use the term "mass hysteria", but I get what you're saying. Maybe that's the other side of the coin. Mass hysteria implies a spontaneous, panicked shared delusion. What I'm describing is the result of a complex and structured system.
  10. May 14, 2009 #9

    If you saw someone stealing your car stereo or someone beating your daughter, would you ask yourself - "How do i define evidence?"
  11. May 14, 2009 #10
    In general, it's better in life to give well thought out responses rather than emotional reactions....
  12. May 14, 2009 #11

    Right. Now which part of this fairly neutral statement:
    provoked you to question the nature of commonly accepted standards of evidence, by saying this:

  13. May 14, 2009 #12
    I think OB 50 raises interesting points.

    Truth is a human construct (or, more generally, the result of sentient life). I see no reason to assume that anything is true or false, outside the realm of conscious interpretation.

    That being said, if everyone believes something, then it's (at least temporarily) true. What's the difference between mass hysteria and science, other than the fact that most of science hasn't been disproven yet? The difference between God and Gravity is not qualitative, only quantitative; if Gravity stopped working one day, then our science would have been a lie; if God descends from the sky one day, then he will be proven true.

    I think it's completely plausible that God is an emergent quality of a system of human beings. Human beings are very complex animals, and when you network them in societies the complexity becomes enormous. Even simple cellular automata can express incredibly rich emergent behavior, and these are many, many orders of magnitude less complex than even the simplest life form.

    I think it's important not to fall into the trap of saying that emergent properties of a system aren't real, though. They are very real; real is a matter of degree and interpretation. Unicorns are real, in that you can draw a picture of one, think about one, and even make one, with enough expertise. If all cats died, would cats cease to be real? If it turned out that cats had always been dogs wearing suits, would cats cease to be real then?
  14. May 14, 2009 #13
    I want to make sure this isn't misinterpreted as a "truth is subjective" discussion. Gravity may very well be the emergent property of some more fundamental underlying structure, but it is not dependent on human opinion or observation. Quite the contrary; we are in fact emergent systems brought about by the structure imposed upon matter by the phenomenon of gravity.

    Another very important distinction. Unicorns possess a very specific set of properties that need to be fulfilled for anyone to consider them "real".

    1. They are solid objects. They can be touched and they take up space.
    2. They are not invisible. They can be seen.

    These two things alone are enough to put a huge damper on people's willingness to believe in unicorns, but this isn't about simple belief in a thing. Unicorns don't possess intent.

    On the other hand, God possesses a unique set of properties which makes it very easy to believe. Most of these are non-falsifiable, which when combined with the concept of faith and the promise of avoiding death, provide a very compelling reason to believe.

    1. Omnipresence - God is everywhere, yet invisible.
    2. Omniscience - God knows everything, including your individual thoughts.
    3. Omnipotent - God possesses great power, including that of life and death.
    4. Intent - God has an agenda. He has a purpose for each believer, and that believer tries to divine this purpose and live according to it.

    Whether God exists or not is irrelevant. The simple fact that there are billions of people attempting to live their lives in accordance with the perceived wishes of a supreme being makes that intent real. The effect on their behavior is indistinguishable in either case.
  15. May 14, 2009 #14


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    What you say about emergence and social construction is commonsense. But where things fall apart for me is the idea that the non-falsifiable can also be considered real.

    If you define something as undectable, untestable, you are defining it out of existence. Its existence becomes moot. Much like imagining a completely non-interacting particle.

    On the other hand, you could change the word god in your chain of argument for laws of physics. They are emergent social beliefs (models, or ideas that shape our impressions) which indeed are everywhere at once, know everything that goes on, able to constrain every event. So they are real in the way you say, but are also a set of testable, falsifiable constructs.

    Getting back to gods and religions, god constructs are in fact tested - as you yourself mention - by their daily social utility. And their ability to propagate through time as memes.

    So gods are indeed real as social memes. And as usually articulated, the "physical properties" of gods do seem in conflict with our scientific models of physical reality. But that is hardly troubling to anyone taking a social constructionist perspective of god beliefs.
  16. May 14, 2009 #15
    A while back I had exactly the same thoughts as you.

    I do think that 'god' does in fact I guess control certain aspects of what happens on this world regardless of whether or not 'god' exist. So this in essence makes the 'intent of said god true' like you said.

    This of course must be so though... how else could it be? I don't believe that thinking that the existence or non-existence of god is irrelevant to the impacts it has on human lives is really productive of anything. This only shows that the concept is real (which it must be anyways because we know of it...) and that people decide to follow the concept (which also must be so because we have the religions you spoke of...). So this concept now has an impact on the lives of humans.

    So what I guess I am saying is that this has no impact on helping determine anything useful... for instance whether their exist 'religious god(s)'
  17. May 14, 2009 #16
    "1. They are solid objects. They can be touched and they take up space.
    2. They are not invisible. They can be seen."

    I think that's a vast oversimplification of *everything*. Water is not a solid object. The empty space in a vase can't be touched and doesn't take up space. Nor is it visible.

    The unicorns thing is a stretch, but your reasoning is severely flawed.

    "I want to make sure this isn't misinterpreted as a "truth is subjective" discussion. Gravity may very well be the emergent property of some more fundamental underlying structure, but it is not dependent on human opinion or observation. Quite the contrary; we are in fact emergent systems brought about by the structure imposed upon matter by the phenomenon of gravity."

    This isn't about subjectivism, just about the fact that very few things in the world are verifiably true. Gravity, God, and the existence of unicorns all provide good examples of things that (a) appear to be true but may not really be true, (b) do not appear to be true but may actually be, and (c) things the truth of which may depend on the interpretation.

    A lot of what I said was a response to criticisms of your points, rather than a supplement to your views, OB50.

    I think the point is that things can exist "by accident" in a certain sense. "God" exists "by accident" because enough people act under this assumption to make his presence felt regardless of the hidden property of his existence. In simpler terms, if you're walking in the street and all of a sudden you feel like you got hit by a bus, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to question whether there was really a bus there at all, or if it was a car or a tractor trailer, or if you really just tripped and imagined the whole thing, or if you're in a coma you'll never wake up from and dreamt the whole thing, etc.
  18. May 14, 2009 #17
    I don't think he is attempting to prove god necessarily exists in reality. Actually from what I got out of this he says exactly what you say. That god is a emergent property of peoples minds. The validity of the belief however he doesn't claim to have any knowledge of.
  19. May 14, 2009 #18


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    Its an interesting concept to imagine that... let's say 4 billion people on the planet have an inkling of what a "god" is. They've either gotten the idea from TV evangelists or from someone singing in a mosque or from a book or just from their parents.

    Concretely, this creates an electromagnetic chatter specifically signatured to describe an "all knowing" being with a big beard or 27 vestal virgins or.. like a scroll with your name on it. This is creating an emergent property of the collective human awareness that surrounds the planet like a haze of dogmatic fear, rapture, more fear and perhaps some ethical wisdom that maintains some of the composure amongst the masses.

    What an enormous opportunity just begging to be exploited by commercial, industrial, military and control freaks. This could well be the cause of global warming:rolleyes:.
  20. May 15, 2009 #19


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    So if I understand it correctly, the statement is basically that the influence of an actual "God" (or other deity / supernatural being) would be indistinguishable from the subtle cumulative influence of a large number of people collectively believing in such a God / deity / being.

    Actually, apart from a few hazy / sarcastic posts, I must admit this is the most interesting thread I've seen in the Philosophy forum in a while.

    Yes, this is basically just a bookmark/subscription post ;)
  21. May 15, 2009 #20

    The ancient Egyptians believed the Sun was God. Would then, by this theory, the Sun be considered an emergent God indistinguishable from the influence of an actual God? Could God be really anything and shouldn't this theory propose minimum standards that would exclude certain "comic" types of God, or does anything go?

    Is this thread serious or am I failing to see the humour?
  22. May 15, 2009 #21
    This is pretty much exactly the point I'm trying to get across.

    I'm completely serious.

    The form that a particular "god" takes is irrelevant. Sure, in ancient Egypt, it could have been the Sun. If everyone in that society tried to live by what they perceived the desires of the Sun to be, then are those desires any less real than those imposed by an actual being?

    Let me be explicitly clear. The only manifestation of this "god's" power or will is through the actions of humans. This has nothing to do with the supernatural, or creation, or any of that jazz. It's purely behavioral.
  23. May 15, 2009 #22
    I concur that this is the most interesting thread in the philosophy forum for a while.

    Everything you're saying seems to make sense.
  24. May 15, 2009 #23
    Maybe it would be helpful to step back from the idea of "god" for awhile, and look at how other emergent systems behave in a similar manner.

    The best example I can think of right now is The Economy. There's no one I know who isn't in some way affected by the state of the global economy. Everyone contributes to it, by either consuming or producing, and everyone is affected by it, in the form of prices and wages, yet no one holds any direct control over the system as a whole.

    As we speak, virtually everyone on the planet is in agreement as to how they want the economy to behave. They want it to get better. Well, that's great! If we're all in agreement that we want a healthy economy, then why isn't it so? If it's just a matter of shared belief, then why doesn't it just happen?

    That's the point. Once a system reaches a certain size and complexity, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Even the most powerful people on Earth have no direct influence over the state of the economy. They try really hard by manipulating individual elements of the system, but the effects can never be accurately predicted in advance.

    The economic system is greater than the sum of its parts: individuals, states, nations, industries, religions. It seems to have its own agenda, and we almost take this for granted. Why is it so hard to imagine that the will of "god" could manifest itself in much the same way?
    Last edited: May 15, 2009
  25. May 15, 2009 #24
    I think i just find this thread pointless because I have already pondered over these ideas and found them to be of minimal use. Like obviously the social construct of say a god will be followed by somebody or the social construct never would have been created. It may have a limited life or it may continue for a extremely long time but none-the-less that/those god(s) still had influence in this world through the actions of the people. Why does this matter though? I could make a new god sitting right here on my laptop and begin indoctrinating simple minded people. Does that mean that my god is 'real'? To me it doesn't it just implies that the construct (of god, not my god) is powerfull. (which is why people will probably believe in my created god)

    One thing however I did find interesting in my thoughts of this process is that the constructs DO take on a whole new life of their own. When we try to get rid of them they will presistently fight to stay in existence. The only way to completely rid society of a particular construct is for everyone in society to simultanesouly take a leap-of-faith to whatever other option there is and never look back.

    For instance when one religion overtakes another the prior religion never just disappears. It always fights to maintain it's existence and sometimes it stays around for extremely long times even though there is another main religion which is more popular. I am sure that people still do believe in an ancient god or gods. Or ancient economic ideas, ideas based on gender etc. etc.

    I think the person I read about this stuff was John Searle, very interesting stuff.
  26. May 15, 2009 #25
    Sure, you can make up a god and start indoctrinating simple-minded people. Maybe in a thousand years you will have converted enough people and established the necessary social structures and institutions for it to have some meaningful measure of influence. Good luck though, because you said yourself that the other established "gods" aren't going down without a fight.

    But the thing is, you can't create a new god. The idea already exists within your head of what a god might be. Sure, the details might be a bit different (mutation), and if they're more appealing than what's out there now, it might take off (natural selection). You'd just be perpetuating the very same process, not refuting it. The process depends upon people doing exactly what you're suggesting. That's how it adapts to the changing world.

    The story is the same over and over again: Creation, Suffreing, Messiah, Salvation.
    (I'm leaving out elements of Eastern religions for simplicity's sake, since their concept of "god", if any, is less personified than the personal Western god.)

    These are the elements that work. Fish have gills and fins, because that's what works. If your new god is missing these things, then you likely won't convert many people. If it does, then what did you really do other than put on a fresh coat of paint?

    I'm pretty sure he would disagree with me, though I did find his Chinese Box thought experiment to be a useful analogy for this type of idea. However, I disagree with his conclusion. The box does speak Chinese.
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