Polytheism, Emergence and the One

Polytheism, Emergence and the One June 12, 2014

Patheos has had some ‘intense conversations’ about polytheism.  Some radical polytheists claimed only their position could coherently be called polytheistic. Others, and I was one, denied this was so. A great deal of discussion centered on past and present Pagan practice, but little focused on the actual nature of polytheism. Recently Christopher Scott Thompson did an excellent historical and philosophical analysis of the relationship between polytheism and monism.  My post complements his, coming at the issue from the perspective of recent discoveries in contemporary science.

The crucial link in my argument came to me while I was not focused on these kinds of issues. I was writing a chapter for an academic anthology exploring the relations of individuals and society.  When I had finished I realized I also had found a way to make better sense of how we and the Gods relate to the One. And I could relate it to fascinating discoveries in biology.

Individuals in society

A long debated issue in the social sciences is how individuals relate to society given that individuals exist and every individual seems to be an expression of his or her society and times. Individualists claimed that a clear understanding could come from focusing on how individuals interacted, an approach called “methodological individualism.”

Like methodological individualism, most opponents are reductionist, arguing a different fundamental unit or relation explains all that is truly most important in society. Individuals are expressions of deeper causes. For Marxists it is class relations.  For racists it is people’s race.  For nationalists it is their national identity.  For some psychoanalytic perspectives individuals are reducible to basic unconscious drives.  And so on.

A small academic industry has arisen as advocates of each of these views, including the methodological individualists, attack weaknesses in the others.  It’s gone on for over 100 years.

In terms of my present discussion methodological individualism can be equated with radical polytheism, the claim the Gods are radically distinct from one another and there is no One from which everything somehow emerges. The solution to the problem of what individuals are is remarkably similar to a logical theory of polytheism.

I think the first clear step freeing ourselves from this endless debate was made by two sociologists during the 60s, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann,  in their The Social Construction of Reality  they argued understanding either individuals or society required understanding how three things (they called them “moments”) operated simultaneously: that individuals are social creations, that society is created by individuals, and the crucial link, that society is an objective reality.  By “objective reality” they meant that when we start becoming socialized as infants and children terms such as “mother” or “father”  that are social constructions, are as real to us as trees and rocks.  As we grow up to some degree we free ourselves from this view, as when we learn other societies have different views of the role of mother or father, but we always do so only partially and piece meal.

All three processes are always going on. From this perspective individuals are emergent expressions of complex relations rather than some basic unit that gathers together with others like itself to form society.  In fact, Berger and Luckmann described both societies and individuals as patterns emerging from relationships, each helping to create the other. This was a kind of ecological perspective though they did not use the term.

It is now turning out that even the individual physical organism shares fascinating similarities with Berger and Luckmann’s sociological description. This insight began to take shape again in the 60s, when Lynn Margulis confirmed endosymbiosis theory, that key organelles of eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus) originated from symbiotic relations between once separate single-celled prokaryotic organisms, such as bacteria. The cells that make up our bodies consist of simpler cells who have become more complex organisms while still to some degree maintaining their own identity.

Far from evolution being generated only by competitive relations, it was also a deeply cooperative process. Margulis even suggested that ultimately cooperation would prove to be more fundamental to evolution than competition. Amazing as Margulis’s research was at the time, no one then imagined how far this breakdown of what we regarded as irreducible individuality would eventually go, or just how prescient her suggestion would prove.

There is a huge difference between an amoeba and a fish, although the amoeba is a eukaryotic cell and a fish is shaped by such cells.  A major difference is that fish, and other complex multicellular organisms are made possible through their cells’ ability to form different tissues.  But how did this ability arise?  Today, at least so far as has now been discovered, the origins of cells’ capacity to form tissues such as skin and bone is derived from viruses.   Parts of viruses were incorporated into a cell, thereby making tissue formation possible.

We are also learning that bacteria form essential components  of our bodies, performing tasks necessary for us to live, such as synthesizing vitamins, digesting food, and protecting against pathogens.  We might not be able to survive without bacteria to perform these tasks, and many of them cannot survive outside us.    Each person has perhaps 1000 species of benign to beneficial bacteria, possessing far more DNA variability than our strictly mammalian body, and the bacterial mix differs with each person.

These patterns of relationship have undermined the traditional idea of what constituted an organism and convinced many biologists we should really be considered ecosystems.   Other biologists prefer describing us as super organisms. 

Long rejected, the term “super organism” is coming into renewed biological prominence from another direction as well: E. O. Wilson’s work on the social insects.  Wilson was once a key advocate of the “selfish gene” hypothesis, but has now abandoned it. Wilson now argues for the importance of sociality, and certain kinds of it, as in ants, generate super organisms. We are far removed from traditional models of competition and individuality.

In all these fields the traditional; model of individuals as having firm boundaries is dissolving in front of us.  But perhaps we can preserve the distinction between an individual, no matter how complex, from its environment?  It is turning out this is not the case.

Scientists recently discovered a bacteria present in the soil can increase the intelligence  of mice once they are exposed to them.  When the bacteria were removed, their intelligence slowly declined.  Mice are mammals, and bacteria that normally live outside of their bodies, when present within them, make them able to run mazes faster.  If the minds of mice, and presumably other mammals, can be shaped by organisms living separately from their physical bodies.  This discovery adds a fascinating possibility as to why kids like to eat dirt.

Even the genomic distinction between different individuals is breaking down. A woman was tested for an organ transplant.  The results indicated that she was not the biological mother of two of her three children. But she had clearly given birth to them.  She had originated from two genomes, one of which gave rise to her blood and some of her eggs.  The other genome was carried in other eggs. It now turns out that many people, particularly women, possess the genome of multiple people.  Our genome is not unique to us and we can have several, sharing some with other people. These discoveries are transforming what we think of as physical individuality just as analyses such as Berger’s and Luckmann’s are solving old debates by reframing what it is to be an individual psychologically and mentally.  As with the soil bacteria that increase the brain power of mice and the existence of more than one genome within some people’s brains, even this distinction between biology and society is breaking down.

We are not organisms that enter into an environment external to us, we are organisms constituted out of at least some of the relations existing within the environment.  Some of these relations are tightly coupled, as in the eukaryotic cell made up of what were once prokaryotic cells.  Other relations are looser but still tightly bound, as with the bacteria on which we depend and which depend on us, but unlike in endosymbiosis maintain a separate individuality.  Then there are bacteria that live separately from us but which might be essential for a truly human mind, as the mice research suggests.  Finally there are very loosely coupled but still connected organisms, such as plants, which create the air we breathe and which we animals in turn help to survive. The division between the tightest and most loosely coupled organism is not a boundary, it is a continuum.


The key concept for understanding the phenomena I am describing is called “emergence.”  The term refers to how complex orders arise “spontaneously” without anyone being in charge.  New qualities emerge that cannot be predicted by the qualities of their parts. While emergent processes are found in both the living and nonliving worlds, I’ll focus on the living.

In biology emergence describes how patterns arise in evolution and ecosystems.  In the human world it explains how language grows and develops; how the internet is enormously useful to everyone seeking information on it; how the market economy coordinates billions of people making trillions of exchanges, and how science hangs together and grows even though no scientist knows more than a tiny fragment of the whole.  And much more.

Not being coordinated “from above,” emergent processes possess what can be described as decentered or distributed authority.  Think of language. No one designed English, no one decides to add some new words and not others.  Most of us are not even aware of the grammatical rules we follow as we speak.  Sometimes we say things we never said before, or hear things we have never heard before, and everyone involved understand what was said. How English maintains itself and changes is something over which every English speaker exercises some authority but no one exercises much.  And yet it all holds together. Order emerges.

Along with language, in ecologies, science, the market economy, the World Wide We, and much else, impressive orders, intricate variety, and spontaneous adaptation occurs in the absence of any central authority or directing hand. (For those interested in a deeper analysis I published a secular scholarly paper on emergence  to kick off the inaugural issue of an online international academic journal.)

The centrality of relationship

In emergent processes order arises from feedback arising out of relationships. Human individuals are quite real, importantly so, but we are not little soul atoms dropped down by God or the Gods, to enter into the world as strangers from afar.  Nor are we isolated organisms existing in an environment separate from us, whether in a state of existential absurdity as Sartre suggested or as Richard Dawkin’s gene powered robots.  Instead, as conscious entities, we are like self-aware nodes within an extraordinarily complex network of relations encompassing biological, ecological and social realms.

At least.

Now for the crucial insight that carries over into understanding polytheism.   Our individuality is quite genuine and important, but it arises as a kind of self-aware gestalt formed by relationships.  We are self-aware, creative, beings made possible by fundamentally cooperative relationships over which we exercise some influence.  What are called moral values are intrinsic to the existence of individuals such as us. There are no fundamental individual entities, just a field of relationships some more tightly coupled than others.

Comprehending the Gods and the One

The above considerations give us a new foundation for probing one of the most important experiences people have had for thousands of years: the monist experience of the One, and encountering deities where, as Christopher Scott Thompson’s article makes clear, traditional notions of individuality break down.

My argument requires making two assumptions modern science does not make. Both assumptions are pretty standard in Pagan religions, and one is standard in all religions of which I am aware.

The first assumption we need is that awareness in some sense is a basic dimension of reality.   I believe this assumption is more reasonable than its opposite.  Awareness is an internal state. Objective reality is external.  It is impossible to imagine how purely external phenomena, such as mass and energy, can generate internal phenomena, such as awareness.  Thomas Nagel is a philosopher who describes himself as an atheist, and in Mind and Cosmos  makes a very good argument as to why some kind of inner experience must be a fundamental quality of reality.

We know that complex phenomena emerge from simpler relations, which is what emergence is all about. If individuality arises from relationships and relationships include some dimension of awareness, then the more complete the network of relationships, and the more aware that network is, the more complete it can be. Two additional good and much longer discussions of this issue are by Emma Restall Orr and Christian de Quincy.

The second assumption (which Nagel does not make but Orr and de Quincy do), is that once awareness is self-conscious in some sense, that self-consciousness does not necessarily disappear when the material form that originally enabled it to emerge disappears.  Anyone who has encountered a spirit or deity, or astral projected, should have little difficulty granting the possibility this is so.  It may be that material existence in our sense is a necessary precondition to the development of individuated consciousness, or not.  I certainly do not know. But it is clear to me, and to many Pagans, that disembodied consciousness does exist, because we have experienced it, sometimes frequently.

These two assumptions, which I regard as reasonable, lead to a coherent model of the deities able to easily explain why they are so varied, and ways of connecting with them so varied as well.

Hubs in networks

Extrapolating what modern science is now discovering about human individuality into this model, the One is the field as a whole, and our individuality is a node in a network within that field. Sometimes our ‘self’ is quite narrowly focused, as when I hit my thumb with a hammer.  Other times it grows far beyond my physical body, as when I empathize with the pain or joy of a loved one.  Selves in the modern sense of conscious individuality are not things, they – we – are patterns of relationship that can include more or less. As self-aware nodes we to some degree choose our present and future relationships even as we are constituted from out of them and we have some say in just how far we will seek to acknowledge and shape the relationships out of which we emerge.

By extension, deities can be thought of as larger, more inclusive, and far more important foci of relationships within the divine network.

Richer relationships lead to richer and more multifaceted individuality.  This is true for people and it seems reasonable to hold the same is true for deities.  Because relationships imply more than one, deities can have many of the same qualities and still not be reducible to one another. Aphrodite is not Venus is not Oshun, but all three are, among other things, Goddesses of beauty. And they themselves can have different dimensions, as Thompson argues.

To my mind this context of similarity and difference is in some ways like what holds for most readers of this essay. We share many of the same aspects shaping who we are (early 21st century English speakers identifying as Pagans). We share far more with one another than we do with first century Chinese or even a 18th century English speaker, but we are still individually distinct. That distinctness is itself fluid, depending on how aware we are of the varied relationships we weave together into a self.   As each of us is a hub where our experiences come together to create a world of conscious individual awareness, and at the same time our relations are connected to other hubs, deities are “super hubs.”

I am using human concepts to describe the more-than-human.  And so they are at most the best road map out there. But they are still a map, not the territory.  That is all any human being can do when trying to comprehend this ultimate reality and then communicate it to others.  That is all the writers of sacred texts and the people who write theology can do.

Polytheism and individuality

If my argument is on target there is no contradiction between being a genuine polytheist, one arguing there may be unimaginably huge number of deities, and holding to the existence of an ultimate impersonal/transpersonal Source from which everything emerges, including the Gods.  Even without the metaphysics, modern science is demonstrating that we ourselves are genuine individuals, but at the same time are such only because of our relationships at every level. We make no great jump to suggest the same holds for Spirit.

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