Radically-Emergent Theism

Radically-Emergent Theism June 16, 2016

I’ve had a draft post saved for almost a year, since John Shuck, Gavin Rumney, and David Williams wrote pieces about emergence and God. One possible view of God is that God is the highest level of emergent order of the universe or multiverse. This viewpoint is sometimes labeled “Radically Emergent Theism,” although nowadays I think that using “panentheism” rather than “theism” might be more apt, even if this is a very specific brand of pantheism.

It seems like the sort of viewpoint that cannot be ruled out in any meaningful way, and so ought to be considered as a possibility even by those whose instinct is to deny that there could ever be a God of any sort.

What do you think? Do you exclude the possibility of such a transcendent reality, and if so, what religious, scientific, empirical, or other grounds do you appeal to in order to justify doing so?

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  • John MacDonald

    “It seems like the sort of viewpoint that cannot be ruled out in any meaningful way, and so ought to be considered as a possibility even by those whose instinct is to deny that there could ever be a God of any sort.”

    The amazing immaterial leprechaun also cannot be ruled out in any meaningful way as God.

    • Johannes Richter

      Except that the universe doesn’t tend towards leprechauns, while agency and consciousness is prevalent among higher order networks.

      • By “higher order networks”, I assume you mean humans and possibly a few of the other animals that exist on this tiny blue dot floating in the vast universe. How are earth animals evidence of any other conscious beings (whether gods or leprechauns)?

      • John MacDonald

        Positing that the Judeo-Christian God is causally responsible for the universe is no more or less likely than claiming the amazing immaterial leprechaun did it. Still “possible” though! lol

        • Johannes Richter

          This is only about the “highest level of emergent order” – a minimal definition. There was no attempt to identify it.

          Without the existence of humans, you would also not have posited our existence simply from observing the universe. But even primitive organisms would have suggested an emergent order. The existence of agency and consciousness certainly is evidence of agency of consciousness in the universe, however insignificant the tiny blue dot where it happens to occur might be.

          • John MacDonald

            In the way it’s true it’s trivial (There are conscious entities on earth), and in the way it’s not trivial (as being suggestive of an even higher consciousness) it is completely unfounded.

          • Johannes Richter

            Not a higher consciousness, a higher complexity. This might have been more unimaginable before the theory of evolution, but now we have evidence of that, too.

            You may consider the emergence of consciousness out of increasing complexity trivial, but it is not unfounded. Whether consciousness was something completely novel in the universe, or already existent, is equally surprising.

          • John MacDonald

            How does human consciousness provide evidence for God?

          • arcseconds

            You correctly distinguish complexity from consciousness in your first sentence, but it sort of sounds like you’re suggesting that increasing complexity is some kind of path towards consciousness in the second?

            I don’t think there is any reason to believe that increasing complexity is any such path. Cities, computer networks, ecologies, and tax laws are all very complex and are all getting more complex over time, but while there’s a lot of science-fiction stories about computer networks becoming conscious, no-one to my knowledge thinks the tax code might one day become conscious.

          • Johannes Richter

            You are describing complicated systems getting more complicated. But emergence is only a property of *complex* systems, a consequence of the interaction of components.

            These interactions are a feature of the system that cannot be studied in isolation. You can take the universe apart atom by atom and you will not find any prediction that consciousness might exist, and yet it evidently does. If we didn’t observe emergent properties, we would not have had any grounds for them.

            The question then becomes whether the evolution of life on earth – our sole evidence for autopoiesis – suggests something about the system in which it occurs. How much of the system are we seeing? De Chardin thought it was the law of Complexity-Consciousness (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_Complexity-Consciousness)

            Whatever it is, the answer will concern the ‘ground of being’.

          • There is nothing particularly intuitive or evidential about these assertions. LaPlace’s anecdotal demon, a creature or machine that could make predictions based on knowing the precise location and momentum of every particle in the universe, can only be a thought experiment.

            Your statement that “you can take the universe apart atom by atom and you will not find any prediction that consciousness might exist” is completely unprovable, nothing but a statement of your own personal faith. Even if emergent properties are too complex for us to predict, that does not in any way entail that these properties cannot arise from fundamental interactions of matter and energy.

            You dismiss the leprechaun analogy, but if you really believe that consciousness is so complex that it couldn’t possibly arise from anything other than a “ground of being” – how do you expect to explain the existence of a “ground of being” in the first place? You’d have better luck arguing for the leprechauns.

          • John MacDonald

            Stop making fun of my leprechauns. My unicorn insists the leprechauns are real!

          • Of course they are real!

            Not only are they real, but Aquinus insisted that there must be a noncontingent cause to our contingent universe. Thus, not only are your leprechauns real, they must, by defintion, be the immovable movers of all creation.

            Leprechauns are the ground of all being.

          • John MacDonald

            Really? Wow! Maybe I should be paying them more than minimum wage.

          • I’d say at least 10% of your income.

          • John MacDonald

            Oh I don’t tithe to the leprechauns. I have an old dog who has chronic diarrhea, and I pay the leprechauns to follow him around and clean up the mess when the dog has an accident.

          • arcseconds

            Thermodynamic properties are emergent properties if anything is. A single molecule cannot be properly said to have a temperature or pressure: these properties arise from the component parts of the system.

            But thermodynamic properties aren’t sexy transcendental consciousness-approaching properties. A thermodynamic system is more complex than its parts in a certain sense: it contains them and therefore all their properties. But in another sense it’s actually simpler than its parts. The complex behaviour of the individual interactions simply doesn’t matter: there are mind-bogglingly huge numbers of different configurations of the same gas molecules that have exactly the same pressure and temperature, but this complexity isn’t interesting complexity, and we can mathematically show we can just gloss over it.

            The internal dynamics of an individual molecule is more complex in the sense that modelling it is much more difficult. And the properties of the system are totally different from the properties of the parts, as can be seen by the different mathematics used to model them: quantum mechanics in the case of individual atoms, and thermodynamics in the case of lots of atoms.

            It’s certainly the case that we’re part of a greater whole in the sense we’re parts of the universe, but what reason is there to conclude or even suspect that it’s an interesting and more ordered and intricate greater whole, like a silicon chip is to a silicon atom, as opposed to a more boring and less ordered and less intricate whole, as a quantity of gas is to an individual atom?

            And what reason is there to conclude the greater whole has a property like consciousness, when frequently the properties of the parts do not re-emerge at the level of the whole?

          • There’s an easy answer, of course, to why we tend to consider human consciousness the most interesting of emergent systems … we’re human … we’re sexy to ourselves.

            We may not find a female naked mole rat particularly sexy, but if we could get into the brain of a male naked mole rat …

          • arcseconds

            Yes, I do wonder whether this supposition that things increase in complexity and develop towards consciousness is simply narcissism: it’s what we like about ourselves, and we see that development in our own evolutionary history, so we presume it’s what the whole universe is all about somehow, whether that be that each individual species is somehow on a trajectory towards writing Hamlet, or the universe itself is, or we’re part of some great Whole that already has those properties, or whatever.

            (It’s scarcely just religious people that think like this: look at all the science fiction involving ‘the next evolutionary step’ or computers spontaneously achieving consciousness, or all talk about things being ‘more evolved’. And people appear to take the science fiction seriously, it’s not just an entertaining yarn.)

            I was thinking of recounting a story about a peacock who supposes the universe is all about developing iridescent tails in my reply to Johannes…

          • Johannes Richter

            You make a good point. Although if consciousness indeed does not re-emerge (or pre-emerge), it implies humans constitute the whole of emergent consciousness of the universe, which also brings us to your point on narcissism below. It is true that on a purely intellectual and philosophical level, it’s hard to find other examples of sentience interesting, even if you can entertain the thought that they might be more highly evolved than modern humans. Having intelligent gods or spirits (or aliens) around probably eases that existential burden.

          • A higher complexity is a fairly vague notion. There are all sorts of complex systems in the universe. Obviously consciousness emerged from other complex systems, as it is, itself, a complex system. Our neural pathways, and the way they respond to our changing environments, have been evolving for millions of years. What do you mean it is not “unfounded” – it is evident.

          • No, the existence of agency and consciousness on earth is evidence for the existence of those emergent properties on the planet earth. They are no more evidential of a “higher level” of consciousness (higher than humans) than echolocation is evidential of “higher order” bats.

          • If there is a risk that we may assume that we are special, there is also a risk that we may swing the pendulum too far the other way. The anthropic principle applies. Just as in an infinite multiverse, sentient beings will inevitably find themselves in one of them pondering just how amazing it is that their universe seems perfectly set up for life, any organism that makes greater progress than others in developing consciousness will have the reflective capacity to realize that their perspective might not be as distinctive or preeminent as it appears. But ultimately, we are the most transcendent entities we know of at our level of existence, and so if we ponder the possibility of other levels, we will inevitably do so in our image and likeness. Is that worse than refraining from doing so altogether?

          • Pondering possibilities is fine, but pondering possibilities is a giant leap from the fallacy of asserting that our consciousness is “evidence” for a higher consciousness.

            Our planet provides evidence that life (as we know it ) is possible; but we don’t yet know whether there is other life in the universe. By the same token our consciousness is evidence that consciousness is possible; but – like life itself – we do not yet have evidence of consciousness elsewhere.

          • We certainly do ponder the mysteries of our existence – and the mystery of existence itself – from a very limited standpoint, with our view as just one species, on one planet, not seeing as much of the picture as we’d like, and probably unable to ever see the whole.

  • Johannes Richter

    I only know this as Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point theory. It puts an arrow point on the line between primordial chaos and present exammples of higher order.

    This recent article in Forbes was an interesting reminder:

    “… a recent spate of books by scientists suggests, science itself may have room for a new form of teleology, a new way to quantify and grasp a goal-driven directionality in nature, one more robust than the Aristotelian version, but one unafraid to acknowledge a progressive movement in the evolution of life toward consciousness.”

    • It’s an interesting article, but I think it’s a stretch to call “self-organization of complex systems” a form of teleology. As Sean Carroll points out, “emergence” might be a useful way to talk about some high order concepts, but it is “weak emergence”. That is, it works within the realm of lower level realities (like kinetic theory), but the lower level of interaction does not require it.

      As he says of “free will” – “It’s not to be found in the most fundamental ontology, but it’s not incompatible with it either; it’s simply a crucial part of our best higher-level vocabulary.”


  • Concepts don’t have to be “ruled” out in order to be considered unlikely. Possibility does not mean plausibility. Russell’s celestial teapot can’t be “ruled out”; that was his point.

    • Possibility does not mean probability. Possibility and plausibility may be closer to one another, depending on just how possible something seems. And I think the teapot analogy misses the mark here, since in one case we are talking about whether an object exists within our universe, which would have to have been put where it is by teapot-making entities like ourselves who, as far as we know, have not done so. In the other case, we are asking about the nature of the universe that we are a part of and which produced us. If we cannot be considered an indication of the character of the universe that is our origin and context, that is itself a matter worthy of reflection.

      • Yes, you have made the more correct statement: possibility does not mean probability. And this is a case in point.

        I think we already are an indication of the character of the universe. We are made of elements formed in exploding stars; we are made of the same elementary particles that can be found throughout the universe.

  • arcseconds

    James, you appear to be suggesting that because a transcendent reality (that is worth calling God) can’t be definitively ruled out, it is therefore worth taking seriously. It’s a possibility therefore it’s on the table, so to speak.

    But this contrasts quite starkly with your attitude towards mythicism. You’re happy to admit that mythicism cannot be ruled out, that there is a possibility that somehow Paul is early gonzo journalism and the rest of the New Testament an elaborate, fantastic Pauline fan-fiction. But then you remind us all that history is about probability, not certainty, and the fact that mythicism is not certainly false does not mean it should therefore be taken seriously as a historical proposition.

    In other words, you demand more from someone making a historical suggestion than asserting that some state of affairs cannot be decisively ruled out.

    And if a mythicist were to say “mythicism cannot be ruled out, so therefore it ought to be taken seriously, even by those whose instinct is to assert there was such a person at Jesus”, I suggest you would respond along the same sort of lines as Beau has here, give or take.

    Furthermore, atheists (at least those who articulate their position) often are happy to admit that God is not impossible (they normally have in mind a theistic God, but an emergent pantheistic God is presumably less problematic), but do not therefore give the notion much credence. They typically demand empirical evidence.

    So their position on God is analogous to your position on mythicism: cannot be definitively proven to be false, but no compelling or even suggestive evidence for it, and therefore isn’t and oughtn’t to be on the table for serious consideration until someone manages to make a better case for it somehow.

    Is it fair to say you have different standards for what is to be taken seriously in history and theology, i.e. a historical assertion needs to be backed by a sound historical argument marshaling evidence, whereas in theology something just needs to be possible? And if so, is there something that justifies the differing standards?

    • I do think that there is a big difference between history and theology, just as there is between philosophy or physics on the one hand and biology on the other. In history and biology, we are studying the past using evidence and that evidence constrains us. In theology and philosophy, when they pick up where cosmological physics leaves off, ask about what might be the case, specifically about things that cannot be proven, such as about the values that take us beyond what we can say we know to what we believe, our values and convictions. And so I don’t think one has a choice but to explore the possible in relation to ultimate questions.

      Does that seem like a fair and legitimate distinction? I’ve noted before that physicists seem much more willing to use the term “God” than biologists, and rightly so, since the latter study a clearly defined physical domain, while the former bumps up against metaphysics and unanswerable questions such as “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I am not at all sure the postulated resultant being would meet the definition of “God” in any event, since the word (in the monotheistic sense) generally denotes the origin and foundation of the universe, not a being emerging from it, and one that is universal and eternal rather than (as implied in the concept) temporal and located in some way as part of the natural or mental fabric from which it emerges.
    It might, however, meet the definition of “a” god in the pagan sense, and indeed in origin stories of pagan gods a sort of emergence from natural forces is frequently seen.

    • arcseconds

      Well, the definition of ‘god’ has changed over the years, hasn’t it? In polytheistic days, gods could come into being and while some were involved in creation this wasn’t a necessary feature. The Bible largely (but not entirely) portrays a monotheistic god, but while this god is pretty powerful, he’s not omnipotent, and often doesn’t appear to be universal, either: in the Torah he apparently has a location, for example.

      The omni-properties and transcendence were attributed to God much later.

      And in the neoplatonic tradition, which is perhaps a little older than Christian theology, the divinity is not in fact distinct from the universe. The Logos contains all the concepts you use to think with, and the rational part of human soul is viewed as participating in the Logos in some way. And likewise, the animal and vegetative parts of the soul participate in the World Soul.

      (Plus of course the notion that the Universe is God is scarcely new: it dates back to at least Spinoza)

      So the fact that some features of this emergent being don’t match what is expected from traditional Christian theology doesn’t automatically disqualify the term ‘God’, especially as traditional Christian theology itself redefined what ‘God’ meant.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        True enough: I would agree that an emergent deity might qualify as “God” in some sense, the example I gave being a pagan-style embodiment of natural forces (indeed that is exactly what an emergent deity would be, and given this there is no logical reason to assume only one of them).
        I am not sure that it would necessarily be recognisable as the neo-platonists’ “world soul” since, like the Christian concept of God, the world derives from it and not it frpm the world, it itself deriving from the eternal “Good” or “the One”.
        Likewise, a pantheist deity viz Spinoza is the origin not product of the physical world, albeit that the physical world is part or all of it and identifiable with it.

        • arcseconds

          I’m not saying the emergent god and the World Soul and the pantheistic god are the exactly the same concept. My point is rather that they are similar in some respects, and are all very different from the being portrayed in the Torah, so ‘God’ has a rich history of use covering very different conceptions of divinity, even within Christian monotheism and its pagan and Jewish relations. As a result, I don’t think there’s much point in dying in a ditch to defend a particular relationship an entity must have to creation before the term ‘God’ can be applied.

          There’s also the question as to whether these terms ought to be defined by some kind of list of necessary and sufficient properties.

          Saul Kripke’s accounting of naming in Naming and Necessity suggests a different approach: an entity is named at some particular encounter with that entity (a ‘baptism’) and so long as the word we use today is causally connected in the right way with that initial baptism, it refers to that entity, even if we’ve changed our minds about what properties it has.

          This account has been very influential in analytic philosophy, and seems to do better with scientific terms like ‘atom’. Our ideas about what atoms are have changed substantially over the years, yet even when we discovered they were divisible we didn’t say ‘Oh, indivisibility is a necessary property of atoms, so these things we’ve been calling atoms can’t be atoms!’

          Rather, we kept the connection between the word ‘atom’ and the entities to which it had come to refer, and just allowed our concept or description of atoms to match whatever properties we thought these entities had at the time.

          How we apply this notion to religious language is not necessarily clear. If we believed in the historicity of the story of the burning bush, that would be a pretty good baptismal event, so the proper name Yahoo-wahoo (or whatever) refers specifically to whoever named themselves in that encounter, and that name refers to them whether they just some sky god (in a polytheistic fashion), the three-in-one omni-god, or a prankster super-alien not unlike Star Trek’s Q.

          But it might be worth thinking about jekylldoc’s idea, that he’s expressed on several occasions but most recently in the World Table discussion on this post of James’s, and the divine is that which we encounter in religious experiences. If these aren’t experiences of a trancendent Creator, they may just be psychological states, in which case ‘God’ refers to those states.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            I would agree with the “baptism” idea, although the difficulty applying it in a religious context is that you can end up with the difficulty that the same word ends up being used for entirely separate entities. To use your example, if a creator / universal origin God does indeed exists but the being in the burning bush wasn’t it, which one is God? Do you say that Moses was mistaken (or hoodwinked) into thinking that God was speaking to him, or that whatever / whoever he heard and saw was indeed God but he was mistaken in thinking God was the creator / origin of the universe? (The problem is further compounded if you don’t either of them exist / existed in any event.)
            This is a serious issue for theists approaching comparative religion – the religious experiences of those of differing faiths are not always readily distinguishable, as much as we might like them to be (a fact atheists are keen to point out).
            If God exists (even only as an attainable mental state as you suggest) by your very sensible analysis as to how we determine identity, asking which is the “right” God is nonsense, it is God’s properties (including whether or not he is an internal mental state or exists independently) that are being determined.
            The only caveat is the one above: theists are operating (even if they don’t recognise it) two independent notions of God, that of the creator / originator if reality and that of whatever it is is the source of religious experience, and (as I am sure you maintain) it is not necessarily the case that these are referents to the same thing.

          • arcseconds

            You still seem to be insisting that creating the universe is a necessary property of being God, which is exactly what I’m trying to bring into question!

            I gave the example of the burning bush because that’s the point at which God names himself to a human being. He calls himself Yahoo-wahoo or something, which is a proper name. After that, yes, Yahoo-wahoo has a referent, who may or may not have created the universe.

            This isn’t really any different from meeting someone online who calls herself Banshee and leads people to believe she’s a wealthy heiress somehow. If it turns out that she’s not a wealthy heiress, it doesn’t mean that ‘Banshee’ actually refers to someone else, someone who actually is a wealthy heiress, and we have to start looking for the real Banshee (and maybe decide there’s no such person as Banshee if we can’t find this person). ‘Banshee’ refers to the person who calls herself that (and whom we call that) in the normal way, but we’re just wrong about one of her properties.

            Or to take another example, let’s say I think that Malcolm Gladwell is the Prime Minister of Australia (because I’ve got him confused with Malcolm Turnball). Generally speaking we usually think being a head of state is the most important thing about the person, but this doesn’t mean that ‘Malcolm Gladwell’ means two different things. The name refers to Malcolm Gladwell, and I’m just wrong about him being Prime Minister.

            Or yet another example, atoms were once thought to be indivisible. This even informed the name. But at no point did anyone say “oh, it turns out that atoms don’t exist! what we thought were atoms turn out to be these things that are composed of other parts.”

            So it seems that naming something is robust in the face of even quite radical changes to our understanding of it.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            My point is that the belief in the existence of God (at least for a monotheist in the aense that I am) does not derive from the encounter with the burning bush but rather the belief that the universe appears (to the theist) to require a creator. The “baptismal” event is then not the burning bush but Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. ” the burning bush just an incident at which it is believed the (pre-defined) God was encountered.
            An illustration of this would be that if I spoke to e.g. a Sikh about God I would consider that would be speaking about the same entity even though he would not believe in (or even have heard of) Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.
            That is not to say that someone else might consider the burning bush to be the “baptismal” incident and the creation contingent: if they did, and the entity on the burning bush turned out not to be the creator of the universe at all then it would turn out that he and I were referring to two different entities as “God”.
            In practice, if forced to choose, I doubt many people would place the definitional “baptism” event for God as the burning bush over and above creation.
            However, I suspect for all that I may be in the minority of theists in placing the baptismal event for God as creation. I suspect that for many / most theists the “baptismal” event is rather their (perceived) personal experience with “God” being the label given to the entity they believe they are in communication with when they pray. An emergent God (if it existed) might well then be considered “God” on that basis, and the creator “God” (again if he existed) would have to be distinguished by being given another name.
            A rough parallel would be the distinction that had to be drawn between the “atom”and the fundamental particle if the universe (if there is one) when it was discovered the atom was not it.

  • Erp

    But complexity is local; the overall universe will increase in entropy even if there are local hotspots (for a time) of complexity. This at least is our best current understanding of physics in my understanding. We humans certainly aren’t the last result of our local hotspot, earth, or the most complex result (despite our egos). But I’m not sure I would call whatever is ‘god’.

  • John Thomas

    I still think that pantheism in some form is a good way to think about the concept of God. But when I say, pantheism I do not mean that God existing just as a physical reality in the form of the universe. I mean it more towards how Stoics envisioned Nature to be. Stoics believed that Nature (everything that exists) is a living animal with intelligence so closely intertwined with matter that it cannot be separated (or as a combination of matter and form as Aristotle postulated). If that is true, maybe both matter and intelligence are so closely intertwined even at the most fundamental level so much so that there might be a microintelligence attached to each fundamental particle which determines its nature and behavior. If that is the case, panpsychism might be a real viable metaphysical option to consider, when we view the reality. Just my random ramblings about one alternate possible conception of God.