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[gthomas] sociobiology of religion

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  • Jim Bauer
    Here are some ideas I ve been kicking around with evolutionary philosopher Bill Wimsatt of the University of Chicago s Committee on the Conceptual Foundations
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 19, 1999
      Here are some ideas I've been kicking around with evolutionary philosopher Bill Wimsatt of the University of Chicago's Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of the Sciences.  I realize that "sociobiology" may be off-topic, save that Stevan Davies has brought up "altered states" as the "spirit" mentioned in GOT and early NT texts.
      First of all, let me note that Stevan's ideas are reductionistic, which can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on how it's applied.  Theory reductions don't necessarily "explain away" upper levels.  The thesis here is simple "hierarchy theory," which is being used by more and more scientists to explain complex systems.  In the case of evolution and the "world equation," Wimsatt's diagram (which appears in Consciousness and the Brain) has two axes, the vertical for regularity and predictability, the horizontal for size, peaks occur at approximate orders of magnitude.  Identity hypotheses, one form of reduction, occur when an upper level can be shown to be identical to the lower.  However, as Herbert Simon put it, "In the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist can also be a pragmatic holist."  Which is to say that labelling the Spirit "trance states" doesn't necessarily "explain away" the phenomenon for me.  They are the product of both complex behaving and perceiving systems.  However, the sealing-off of revelation from spirit-possession in the orthodox body was probably a change in levels of organization, and emergent weak forces demanded to become more powerful to stabilize the system so it could go on to become a world religion.
      But to continue the discussion of altered states, ISTM that there are indeed archetypes, created by inclusive-fitness around the "near-death experience,"  The evolution of religious symbols out of a lot of brain noise similar to the products of sexual selection.  In this case, genotypic elements are heightened or lessened largely by chance which produces sign-stimuli which lead to successful matings.  Consider that men prefer large breasts.  Breast size therefore increases.  Consider the plumage of peacocks, just one more example of how sexual selection has created bizarre forms for the sake of adaptation.
      Inclusive-fitness plays a major role in creating the death-rebirth symbolism which is the symbolic core of all religion,  This is because kin altruism is heightened by an animal having such an experience--the long, dark tunnel, the mysterious figure at the end, &c.  Shared genes among kin motivate them to act altruistically, as these genes are preserved even if the savior dies in the process.  The gene-line has been indirectly preserved.  Consider this:  your father falls in a lake and drowns and you have a religious experience which leads you to believe that you are immortal, you'll be more likely to jump in the next time.  Losing the fear of death is highly adaptive. 
      In such experiences, the chaotic brain-noise generated by dying can be mimicked by drug experiences because they wildly perturb the entire system.  Also, note that people who've been "legally dead" and brought back to life have had a fairly long period of time to experience the afterlife, indicating that it is an elaborate system of interacting brain sub-systems, not what you'd get for, say, blowing your head off with a shotgun where death is instantaneous.
      Another idea I've been playing around with is that causality evolved.  I do not mean by this that causal forces have not always worked in an ontogenetic sense, I mean that epistemologically, causality has evolved as a perceived force.  Animals, to cope with their environments, have to have an understanding of causality--because a wolf can cause injury or death, the wolf is to be feared.  Same thing goes for fire.  The opposite holds for food.  However, earlier understandings and misunderstandings on the part of our evolutionary forebears probably contained a lot of magical causality, such as astrology and alchemy, where metaphors are perceived as literal truth thru sympathetic magic.  These primitive causalities are, I believe, stored in the R-complex (the portion of our brain we share with reptiles) and deeper layers than that, but all this can also be accessed by altered states.  Including the Pentecostal stuff that keeps coming up in discussions of Stevan's work.
      Another area where I think altered states psychology can be applied to the evolution of religion is in what I call the individual as a "perceiving system," the complement of Skinner's "behaving systems."  Suppose you've had an ineffable mystical experience so, by definition, you can't put it into literal words.  Instead, you use metaphors and run around desperately seeking others who've had the same experience so it can be shared.  Or, as Plotinus put it, "mysticism is the flight of the alone to the Alone".  Metaphor may have predated language in ape brain-systems primed for their colonization by memes, or replicating systems like ideas, like the one I'm trying to replicate now.
      Of course, this does not mean that you cannot make literal statements about, say, the life of Christ, but once you've had a mystical experience, of the spirit or whatever, you often do wind up using a lot of symbols.  Thomas uses both, like the much-discussed lion/man metaphor and the various parables,  This is perhaps even more so than the NT, as the NT contains a lot of supposed "facts" about Jesus, for example the Nativity and the crucifiction.
      I hope this essay wasn't too off-topic.  To me, it seems a fitting commentary on Stevan's discussion, one which brings up biological ideas he may have not been aware of.  When I have enough ideas, I'll submit to a journal, but this particular piece is the first time these ideas have been published anywhere.  If it is judged off-topic by the moderators, I'll continue the discussion with Stevan in private.
      Jim Bauer
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