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Spiritual Computation: The 'Religious Galaxy'

A Phase Space of Spiritual Worldviews

"There is no conflict between science and religion. Science asks what the world is, and religion asks what humankind and society should become" — Albert Einstein


The Religious Galaxy

What follows is our suggested map of the phase space of religious world views, a relational exploration of the polarities of possible religious belief. It was partially inspired by three synthetic works, Karen Armstrong's A History of God, 1994, Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything, 2001, and James Sire's problematic but helpful The Universe Next Door, 1997.

The Religious Galaxy

As the diagram shows, we can picture three dimensions (degrees of freedom) in this simple model.

1. The first dimension (z-axis, top to bottom here) is the Belief in God: the degree that belief in spiritual things is relevant to our world view. We can define belief as unproven spiritual knowledge, received personally. There seem to be five levels to this dimension of spiritual computation:. Nihilism, Agnosticism, Philosophy, Mysticism, and Relativism.

Starting at the bottom of the diagram and working upwards, for Nihilists the primary belief is that no belief system can have any privileged position, nothing is knowable. For the Agnostics, the concept of God and related spiritual topics are assumed to be presently unknowable (a-gnosis). Philosophers (where most of us reside) have a number of beliefs, but they are relatively tested, fixed and slow to change. Mystics are regularly adding new, transcendent, untested beliefs to their spiritual storehouse, ways of knowing that can sometimes change their world view. Relativists believe that all beliefs, including conflicting ones, have equal value, and represent different views of the same truth. The Nihilist and the Relativist positions are in one sense polar extremes, yet we can also see that they have internal symmetries, and they close the circle, so to speak.

If we were to map it, I would argue that the distribution of human beliefs in the above phase space looks a lot like a galaxy, viewed edge on, with most human beings dwelling close to the Philosophy plane. While more individuals may presently be mystics than agnostics, this ratio is itself rapidly balancing out as the world progresses, and even in historical theocracies I'd wager that many were secret agnostics. In general, the distribution is, and apparently always has been somewhat galaxy-shaped. I don't think that is an accident: complex systems are always trying to collapse phase space, because successfully doing so will greatly accelerate useful computation. In other words, the grossly 3D to grossly 2D (sphere to plane) transition is very commonly seen in evolutionary development at all systems levels. Think of galaxies, accreting solar systems, the surface of earth, catalytic chemistry on the surface of rocks, and computer chips: all the action goes to a plane.

2. The second dimension (x-axis, left to right on each plane) can be called the Embodiment of God: the personal immediacy and perceived utility of spiritual concepts. This can be divided into three common responses: Theism, Deism, and Atheism.

Theists believe in a personal, present God, one who can actively influence their and universal life, yet one that can be embodied as separate from the universe and from humans, one that is omniscient and omnipotent, one that transcends finite, material things. Usually (but not always) God has frequently revealed spiritual purpose to human beings through some particular scriptures (e.g. the Bible, the Koran), creating a "revealed religion." Theists spiritual knowledge comes primarily by faith, with some scripturally-allowed intuition, reason, and empirical testing. Deists believe in higher intelligence and power in the universe, but one that may turn out to only be the universe itself, acting as a finite, materially-based system. The Deist's God has influence, but only in abstract, probabilistic ways, via the universe's special structure, or psychologically, via one's subjective and limited model of God, constructed in the process of experiencing the natural environment. Deists spiritual knowledge comes primarily by induction (and intuition), with experience- and intuition-allowed faith, reason, and empirical testing. Atheists see no or little personal value to the concept of God. They acknowledge the historical psychological value of collectively-shared myth, particularly in a world where science has little to say about values, but they don't sense a present God, either personally or in some abstract sense in universal structure. Atheists spiritual knowledge comes primarily by deduction (and empiricism), with logically- and empirically-allowed faith and intuition. (Atheists, for example, believe in the validity of unproven scientific axioms).

The current distribution along this dimension may be funnel-shaped (or perhaps a lopsided galaxy, I'm not exactly sure). Many people are presently Theists, the second most common are Deists (though most wouldn't use this term, the typical lapsed Theist is somewhere in the Deistic realm), and a smaller but not insignificant number are Atheists. But again, this lopsided shape seems likely to transmute into a more classic galactic shape over time. The number of Atheists continues to rise slowly, and Theists are on a steady decline in Western societies. As science advances, I would argue that most humans will come to inhabit the middle realm, though this may take several more generations to occur. If true, the emergence of a scientifically consistent Deism, by whatever name, may be one of the more important spiritual transformations of the coming century.

3. The third dimension (y-axis, front to back here) is Perspective on God (System or Observer): the degree of exteriority (objectiveness/ general system), or interiority (subjectiveness/ unique observer) of our knowledge of spiritual things. There are three common choices here: Objective, Integrative, and Subjective.

Objective knowledge represents the perspective of the system. It is more permanent, consistent, and uniform, regardless of individual observer. It is a systemic feature or data that can be reliably experienced, ideally via replicable scientific experiment. Subjective knowledge is the perspective of any observer within the system. It is more ephemeral, more individually varied, and more observation-dependent. It is knowledge that is being created by self-observers in universal evolutionary development. Each of our own individual consciousnesses, to the extent that they are both unique and self-referential, contains subjective knowledge. Some (not all) of those who pursue this knowledge have a strong anti-intellect, anti-logos (words) bias. Integrative knowledge is a perspective that tries to include both external and internal ways of knowing, and find the relevancy of each. The integral term can also be broadly applied to the search for a balance between holism and reductionism, God and no-God, belief and no-belief, chance and necessity, evolution and development, and any other natural dichotomies.

Here the current distribution is again galaxy shaped. There are some extreme objectivists and subjectivists, but most people try to integrate the two perspectives. In Western societies the center of gravity is on the objective side of integral, balanced by a center on the subjective side of integral in many Eastern and developing societies.

Further Explorations of the Middle Planes

The true Relativist and Nihilist positions are perhaps more caricatures than planes. Few individuals inhabit them for long, and most of us do so experimentally, for periods that are a small fraction of our average human thoughtspan. The middle three planes are far more persistently populated.

On the Mystic plane we find individuals who profess an ability to transcendently know something about God, the universe, or the self. We see transcendentalist theists, New Age deists, and those atheists who claim to transcendently know that God does not exist or is not a useful concept. These are individuals for whom new belief is frequently used to mediate one's spiritual journey. There are subjective mystics (describing new personal revelations), objective mystics (inventing new scientific laws and languages) and integrative mystics who use new belief construction (and oscillation) as their primary mode of spiritual search. For most of us, however, a choice from the pre-existing belief palette is quite sufficient for our spiritual journey, and application and refinement is much more our focus.

Likewise, on the Agnostic plane there are individuals who profess a circumscribed inability to know something about God, the universe, or the self, while being otherwise open to belief exploration in other areas. We are all temporarily agnostic on unfamiliar subjects, but this tends to disappear with experience. Again subjective agnostics are common (think of the sexes, each professing not to understand the other) as are objective ones (a scientist professing not to understand spiritual practice).

On the Philosophy plane, the greatest density of human spiritual inhabitants, we can usefully describe nine natural categories. In the farther left we find Scriptural Theists. These are those for whom received scripture is an objective record of God's word and will. In the farther right, we find Natural Atheists, those for whom scientific knowledge is an objective, reliable record of a world in which God is not a useful concept. In the farther middle we find Rational Deists, who favor objective knowledge for all spiritual questions. They see the value of commonly held (evolutionary psychological, and possibly pre-objective) religious belief, yet consider the subjective to be unreliable, and very often wrong. In the nearer left we find Existential Theists, who believe that contingent, personal revelation is the central record of God's word and will, for each of us. The scripture of their particular faith, while useful, is given to each believer as a jumping off point for the construction of their own spiritual thoughts and experiences, which are each very personal and not easily described. In the nearer right we find Existential Atheists, who believe that personal search for peace and fulfillment, not metaphysical illusion or limiting scientific paradigms, is the most important type of "spiritual growth." (They would be unlikely to use this term). In the nearer middle we find Existential Deists, who favor subjective knowledge for all spiritual questions, considering both scripture and science highly inadequate in describing the ineffable experience of God. In the middle left we find Integral Theists, who seek to promote, within one religious choice, both the objectivity of scriptural dogma and a wide variety of possible, conflicting personal spiritual journeys. In the middle right we find Integral Atheists, who see a Godless physical universe, but recognize the deep value of both scientific and unique, personally received knowledge in the search for wisdom, for living well in the world.

Finally, in the middle middle we find Integral Deists, who seek to integrate all of the abovementioned ways of spiritual knowing, without overreliance on any one of them. In theism, they might be like Unitarians, Bahai, Quakers, Stoics, and Gnostics, who seek to understand all the world's religions without professing the exclusive value of any of them, but be able to empathize and dialog with believers, preferably in their own language and idiom. In atheism, they would seek to understand all the historical and sociopolitical evidence for the past and current excesses of religion, and be able to progressively work toward an increasingly secularlized world. In objectivity, they would see the superior meaning inherent in scientific information and scripture that has remained popular and unredacted for generations, and would seek to better unearth and articulate that value. In subjectivity, they would champion the irreducible uniqueness of each individual path through the world of the known and unknown, and the tremendous value of encouraging and empowering that uniqueness, and judging very lightly, for none of us can be proven to hold a privileged value set.


Integral Deism: The Curious Middle

This model suggests that Integral Deism is a seed from which we all diverge as we evolutionarily explore all realms of the phase space of religious belief. ID also appears to be a convergent developmental attractor toward which we continually return. That suggests it occupies a particularly important place within the pantheon of possible religious beliefs. Some famous (and often Integral) Deists include Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and Albert Einstein.

What of "intelligent design," that combination of anthropic physical theory and natural philosophy that argues that the universe has a special structure that must produce life, intelligence, self-awareness, immunity, and perhaps, relentless computational acceleration toward technological and developmental singularities? Interestingly, many recent theories of intelligent design do not incorporate the theistic concept of an embodied designer, and thus are variants of integral deism.

In this paradigm the design we see in nature may all be tuned into the special parameters of the seeds of developmental structures in this universe (suns, solar systems, chemistries, living beings, human-catalyzed technologies), by a process of cyclic evolutionary development (self-organization, over multiversal time) as universes unfold and rebirth in the multiverse. The deism consists in the observation that the godlike intelligence (universal creation guidance) encoded in those parameters is today mostly hidden, but is being progressively revealed over time. Fortunately, our sciences of simulation will allow increasingly sophisticated tests of such anthropic arguments for universal evolutionary developmental design in coming years.

The Sombrero Galaxy

What an amazing time to be alive.