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Let me first present wherein the thought arises; NPR’s two-part series with Nancy Ellen Abrams. To explain how she can situate a formulation of God within physical reality and thereby make God and science compatible (and thus, the human species can progress and save itself — it’s a lot to digest, I know), she uses the analogy of ants:

The colony can engineer the construction of an ant hill as high as a man and as busy as a city, yet no one is in charge. Some ant hills can last a century. Over its lifetime, the colony will go through predictable stages of development, from aggressive youth to conservative maturity to death, yet no ant lives more than a tiny fraction of that time. What is going on? Where does swarm logic come from?

It emerges from the complexity of the interactions among the ants. An ant colony is self-organizing. Emergence is a powerful scientific concept that cuts across many fields — in fact, it happens throughout evolution. From the formation of galaxies to the evolution of life to the folding of proteins to the growth of cities to the disruption of the global climate, emergence creates utterly new phenomena out of interactions of simpler things.

Emergence, then, is essentially the idea of complexity arising from simplicity; that is, complexity arising from all the individualized parts working together not knowing what the bigger picture of complexity looks like or even how to get to it individually.

God, then, as Abrams gets at, although I’m not totally convinced of it and she doesn’t flesh out the steps to arrive at her conclusion enough, is “emergence.” God is the answer to human aspirations, i.e., all individual humans aspire to something beyond mere survival and the complex formulation of that is what we could call “god.” God is generations of humans, individually working together to create complexity around Big Ideas like justice, truth, honesty and so on.

Here’s what’s beautiful, then:

A conception of God relies upon social cooperation. Human flourishing relies on social cooperation. And moreover, individualism and this emergent social cooperation (that gets at a God, if you want to call “it” that) are not incompatible. This isn’t the argument Abrams made, but I’m going there.

In other words, people seem to think, say, freed markets and social cooperation are at odds or that individualism is at odds with social cooperation. But in reality, all of us individually aspiring to whatever we want to and doing so with the necessary social cooperation of others creates an emergent society of trade and commerce and complex ideas that move the society forward.

And just like the ants, “nobody” has to control it. There doesn’t have to be a central planner. Nobody can even explain it, much less try to dictate its machinations.

I’m diverging a bit from the top of “God as Emergence,” but it galvanized my thinking about free markets and “how best to organize society.” The best way to organize society is to not organize it all, as it turns out.

That’s why I get frustrated when people argue that free markets are cold, almost anti-human. When to me, that emergence property and the need for social cooperation is what makes markets beautiful; it’s what makes humanity beautiful.

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2 thoughts on “God as Emergence

  1. I’m not sure why the word “God” has to be applied at all. Maybe because I’m an atheist, I react negatively to it. Still, I’ve been talking about emergence since the mid-90’s and a friend of mine suggested that at the time. Still, I’m as convinced now as I was then. What’s the negative emergence of humans? The devil? Meh… silliness. Similarly, the emergence of money/economics, war, technology? Are those gods of money, war, technology?

    The problem with your “beauty” of the emergence of free markets etc… is that some of these can be fatal to the human race. The arms race in the cold war was emergent behavior of two, large organisms made up of hundreds of millions of people that almost wiped out billions. “Emergence” doesn’t equal “good”.

    Interestingly, I interviewed a professor of religion (James Vietch) in 2007 after reading his books (a modern translation of the new testament ordered chronologically by when they were written). I asked him, since I couldn’t resist, “Do you believe in God?” and he answered, “I do, but then you have to ask, what do I think God is.”, so I asked, “What do you think God is?”, to which he replied, “The highest aspirations and ideals of mankind.” – sound familiar?

    • I’m with you that i’m not totally convinced in labeling it God, but it certainly is some sort of phenomenon.

      As for free markets and your example of the Cold War, I would say that’s an example of governments, not free markets. Only government can force massive redistribution of resources and peoples to the ends of war. And make them believe that it’s for a good cause.

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