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Emergentism | Introduction
Introduction to 'Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity for the Metamodern World'
The Meaning Crisis
Why do I exist? Where are we going? What’s it all about?
For a growing number of people today, these existential questions are only convincingly met with admittedly bleak and depressing answers:
No good reason. Nowhere in particular. Nothing, really.
More and more, people feel life matters less and less. A 2019 survey from the UK, for instance, found that a whopping 80% of people there believe their lives are meaningless. That number rises to almost 90% for younger respondents (ages 16 to 29).
Such figures go hand in hand with similar data detailing our exploding mental health crisis. Depression and anxiety are skyrocketing (again, especially among younger folks). Self-harm and suicide are at epidemic levels. Today, we lose more people to despair than to natural disasters, conflicts, and war—combined. For the first time in human history, you, reader, are more likely to die due to the emptiness in your heart than the emptiness in your stomach.
It seems then, one could say, that it is not the external world that threatens us now so much as the internal one. What we believe, or don’t believe; how we think and feel; what we aspire to, or not—these have become more powerful forces determining our destiny than food, fire, and shelter. Certain worldviews are bad for your health, it seems—and the dominant ones are proving downright pathological.
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This has implications not just for individuals, but for civilization as a whole. Nihilism scales. We all know a sense of meaninglessness can drive a person to engage in unhealthy, self-destructive behavior (like addiction to drugs, alcohol and pornography; carelessness about relationships and breach of ethical responsibilities; apathetic lethargy, or the endless risky chasing of ephemeral highs). But when that sense of meaninglessness affects an entire society, the self-destructive symptoms manifest proportionally. The civic fabric frays; community hygiene deteriorates; the future holds no purchase on the present generation. Not just our relationships, but our institutions erode; not just our backyard, but Nature herself is left trashed. Our collective prospects dim—not singly, but en masse; not from without, but from the dark within.
Arguably, that is precisely what we are seeing happening right now. All around us, modern society is falling apart at the seams—from the inside out. The rich hoard their wealth; the political class, their power. Short-term gain outweighs existential risk, and profit trumps principle again and again.
But why shouldn’t it? Those who’ve read a book or two will know: life’s just a cosmic accident; the fit survive by preying on the weak and stupid; morality’s a fairy tale invented to keep people in line; and, sooner or later, the sun will explode, the universe will end in heat death, and none of this dazzling sound and fury will have meant a goddamn thing—so why not live it up while we can?
Such existential conclusions actually seem quite rational stances within the context of the modern reductionistic worldview. If everything’s as meaningless as we’ve been taught to believe by the Stephen Hawkingses and Richard Dawkinses of the world, then why not get what we can, while we can, and let the rest be damned? “Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die!”—or, the modern equivalent: “Burn through Earth’s pristine commons today for myself, because I won’t be the one feeling the negative consequences tomorrow!”
Such thinking, of course, only exacerbates the collective inner disease of meaninglessness, as tomorrow’s generation comes of age in asphalt deserts and a trashed environment and concludes all the more quickly and keenly how urgent it is that they get theirs while they can, in order to buy their escape to a place less dismal and hellish.
So meaninglessness begets meaninglessness, despair despair, and degradation degradation—a downward spiral, gaining speed.
Now, the religious crowd, of course, will be the first to point out that these bleak trends correlate directly with the decline of religion in society. And, to be fair, they’re not wrong. Data show that those affiliated with organized religions do, on the whole, tend to be happier, healthier, and live more meaningful lives. Religious narratives provide existential orientation and a sense of purpose in a confusing cosmos. But religious affiliation is tanking, and today, the “Nones”—those who claim no such affiliation—are the fastest growing demographic of all. The coming generation will be the least religious yet—but also, as we’ve noted, the one most plagued by depression, hopelessness, and existential despair.
So, is a heaping dose of some “good ol’ fashioned religion” the easy answer to what ails us?
The fundamentalists would have you believe so. And, to those bucking the broader trend and actually turning toward religion today, it’s largely fundamentalist religion that’s attracting them. Considering the dismal assumptions of the prevailing modern worldview, it’s not surprising that millions of people find decidedly more comfort in the idea that the world was created by an omniscient God, that there is value and worth to every life—that there’s a supernatural Plan and Direction to history, and some final Transcendent beyond.
Unfortunately, maintaining these beliefs (at least, in a way that’s in accordance with anything like traditional orthodox versions) comes with its own steep price to pay. Bluntly, if you’re to buy into meaning of this kind, it requires your willful ignorance or disregard for the genuine insights of modern science and all that it’s taught us about the world. A faith-based conviction untroubled by doubt or uncertainty suffers from a lack of critical reflection. “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Asking questions is dangerous if you want to sleep soundly at night. As Emerson noted, “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both.” As it happens, choosing truth (as modernity knows it) actually demands that we discard that old traditional God, along with whatever repose belief in Him may have granted us.
But if science seems to require that we embrace our insignificance and absurdity, our inconsequential lives and depressing future, many are opting for that easier, more seductive alternative. The threat of meaninglessness bearing down from the modern world has caused many to recoil and make a beeline for simple creeds and false certainty. The result is a resurgence of interest in the mythic-traditional worldview’s old fables and fictions. At least there you can find some warmth and connection, some purpose and direction.
But this approach is, in the end, untenable—and ultimately no more helpful, it turns out, for saving the world from breakdown and decay anyway. For even if traditional religion were not fundamentally at odds with reality, it still harbors within its seemingly innocuous naïveté its own form of nihilism and a view of this life as meaningless. The meaning that it offers is not a meaning for life and the world, but a means of escaping them—for something else.
Recourse to a “supernatural” is not just an explanatory cop-out—one that, ironically, actually tends to limit the amount of awe and wonder one has for the glories of Creation—it is also an ethical cop-out, and perhaps no better than the hedonistic nihilist’s “Looking Out for Number One” precept. For, despite their profound differences, both the modern and traditional worldviews today ultimately lead, on the whole, to the same dark outcome: destructive short-term thinking that justifies trashing the Earth.
Consider, for instance, that the majority of Evangelical Christians maintain that the apocalyptic Second Coming will happen within the next 30 years. They are not long for this world. Indeed, though being in it, they were never really of it. The world, they proclaim, is fallen, sinful, evil—in short, not worth saving (only our immortal souls fit that bill). God created the Earth to be used and exploited by humanity, and it is our divinely sanctioned duty to extract its resources for the short term as we await the imminent Rapture at the timely End of Times. The only “long term” worth thinking about is a heavenly Eternity, since all that we know here will soon burn, for good, in the Final Judgment.
The modern nihilist might own up to living a cynical “smash and grab” lifestyle; but the religious fundamentalist can live the same way, yet with a pious conviction that they’re actually following the will of God as they do so.
So, what are we to do? Is living a full, robust, flourishing life of meaning and purpose simply impossible these days? We seem caught between two equally bad options: a modern reductionist worldview, supposedly in accord with science, that says our existences are an insignificant cosmic glitch, or a traditional religious worldview that outright eschews science in order to maintain some sense that we actually matter. Worst of all, whichever one we choose, each seems to only justify the sort of selfish, short-sighted behavior that is degrading the planet and exacerbating the spread of meaninglessness all around us.
Fortunately, more and more people are waking up to this problem—which is, in every sense of the word, the existential challenge of our time. The meaning crisis (as it’s been called) is increasingly coming to be recognized as the driving force behind so many of the world’s more readily apparent and openly discussed concerns—from climate change to massive economic inequality—precisely because it represents the inner dimension of those exterior dysfunctions.
Broken meanings break the world. But just fixing the systems and the institutions now crumbling will not be enough to get a handle on such issues if we fail to transcend the worldviews that have created and perpetuated the dissolution in the first place.
So, where does all this leave us? Simply put, the prevailing modern worldview of reductionist science and disenchanted secularism is inadequate for sustainable human flourishing; the traditional worldview, however, is even less equipped to navigate the perilous landscape before us, and the reactionary impulse, however attractive when times are tough, is only making things worse. There is, in short, simply no going back.
If we are to move beyond this impasse—as we must, if we are to keep civilization itself from breaking down and the Earth from maxing out—then it will only be by breaking through to a new way of thinking, a new worldview with a new sense of meaning and purpose. The only way out is through.
Jamie Wheal, in his book Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex, and Death in a World That’s Lost Its Mind, sums up our situation succinctly when he writes:
To be certain, the edifice of mainline religion—Meaning 1.0—has collapsed, but secularism—Meaning 2.0—hasn’t been enough to hold the center in its place. As things fall apart, we’ve seen a migration to the extremes of fundamentalist beliefs on one hand and a drift toward nihilism on the other. And for those stuck in the moderate middle, identifying as ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’? The Nones have no particular place to go.
To which this book responds: What if they did?
What if we weren’t forced to choose between religion and science, spirituality and reality, meaning and truth?
What if (it turned out) science itself was actually leading the way in uncovering an entirely new vision of the universe—a new, empirically-grounded worldview that actually spoke to our souls?
What if we’ve only been seeing half the picture for so long, and are only now beginning to glimpse the truer, bigger picture?—one in which, it’s at last clear, life is not just some chance accident or fluke, but an inevitable and important development of the universe’s design plan; where evolution isn’t blind, but actually has a pattern, direction, and even a purpose; where everything isn’t inexorably destined to descend into disorder and cosmic dissolution, but actually grows more and more complex—and, in fact, conscious—with time?
What if you are a part—and an important one—of a cosmic story stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, and concluding (if ever) in the fullest realization of what could only be called, with all semantic justification, Divinity?
If life was as meaningful as that, just imagine what this could mean for healing the mindset now breaking the world…
The new way of conceiving the universe and our place in it isn’t just some fanciful New Age bullshit; believe it or not, we now have every reason to think it (or something like it) is factually, scientifically true.
A paradigm shift has been occurring in the sciences over the past few decades—one that promises to transform our way of seeing the world. Indeed, it has already impacted academia and intellectual circles in profound, game-changing ways. It is now poised to sweep into the public discourse more broadly, where it will re-frame for millions of people some of the most important philosophical and spiritual questions humanity has been asking since the dawn of time—a transformation this book would like to help facilitate.
While drawing considerably from its findings, though, Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity for the Metamodern World is not intended as simply an introduction to that new scientific paradigm. Many such works already exist and are of immense value. No, rather than simply provide an overview of the new science’s mind-blowing discoveries and conceptual paradigms, I would like to offer something more important and meaningful.
Good science is, as a rule, judicious, ever cautious not to overstep the data’s limited conclusions by too much inference, implication, or extrapolation. That is as it should be, and is what establishes the methodology of science as its own unique academic discipline. At the same time, though, it is ultimately our knowledge of the world that science is deepening, and our knowledge of the world is what shapes and informs our worldview, by which we live and think and feel and make meaning every day. So while we need scientists to continue their diligent work establishing the solid empirical basis of knowledge, we also need people to help integrate that knowledge into a fuller, more comprehensive vision of reality. Otherwise, we risk missing the forest for the trees—awash in data, but lacking the kind of knowledge and wisdom that actually make a difference in our lives.
As a theologian and mythologist, I am interested in worldviews and, particularly, the grand narratives that undergird them. As such, I am a bit freer than the strict scientist to draw wider conclusions, extrapolate into the yet-unknown, invoke poetry and metaphor, and generally paint a bigger picture based on their findings. As such, my interest is not scientific paradigms per se, but rather how these paradigms can shift the way we see the world, and our place in it, in ways that either help or hinder our sense of meaning and purpose.
It is my belief that the new science I’ve alluded to has the potential to radically shift our beliefs in such a way as to resolve the meaning crisis and, as a result, start to heal its outward symptoms of destruction and decay. But, for its message to be effective, it needs to be communicated in a manner that makes it clear, compelling, and attractive. To that end, our new scientific understanding of the world must be freed from the arcane technical language of textbooks and articles and allowed to shine with the full glow of myth and poetry if its radical, life-transforming implications are to be realized. That is what I will try to communicate here.
I do this work in the context of the thought fields of today, in the frameworks of contemporary thinking—and here, too, there is exciting progress afoot (itself informed by the new science I will be describing). Theorists, futurists, writers, thinkers, artists, activists, and philosophers have begun to take a more self-consciously pro-active role in re-imagining fields and domains previously considered simple givens. Armed with the conviction that we co-create the social world as much as we are shaped by it, such visionaries are increasingly framing their work through the lens of design.
Culture is not just something we passively experience, but also something we actively influence. The sociological categories themselves are thus, in a real way, up for re-conception and re-invention. Government, economics, education, and yes, even religion are social structures and systems whose parameters should not be taken as immutable givens but, within reason, and subject to constraints, be up for redesign. Jamie Wheal calls such work “culture architecture.” I tend to think of it as “civilizational design,” wherein culture-artists develop new ways of living and being for a world so urgently in need of new possibilities.
Like Wheal, I am also interested in culturally architecting a new framework for meaning after the failures of Meaning 1.0 and 2.0—a novel Meaning 3.0, that would include qualities of both traditional religion and modern science, while transcending the limitations of each. The result will be the best of both, without the worst of either.
So it is that, within the context of civilizational design, I think such a project demands that we articulate a new religion— “Religion 2.0,” if you’d like to think of it that way. That is what this book seeks to present—not just a survey of mind-blowing new scientific advances, but actually a whole new spiritual framework for society that puts those advances to work in reconceiving humanity’s place in the cosmos. As Wheal puts it, “It might be time to grab that third rail of Meaning and ride the lightning for all we’re worth. We need to reinvent religion.”
While the idea of reinventing religion might land as hubristically audacious at least, and megalomaniacally dangerous at worst, it should be clear that such a project does not spring from the usual poisoned wells—for instance, some pathological desire of a charismatic leader to form a cult in order to manipulate the gullible and profit from their naïveté. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, this work emerges from the earnest desire to offer a fresh way of seeing the world, informed by the best new science, that can free people from their culturally-induced bondage to nihilism or fundamentalism. If we can do that, we stand a chance at living genuinely meaningful lives at a time when the lack of meaning is so acute as to be actively pushing human civilization, and countless sentient creatures with it, towards extinction.
In reconstructing religion in this way, we are well aware of the challenges, limitations, and potential pitfalls of such an endeavor—including taking ourselves far too seriously. You can be sure, then, that I am not presenting this work with stone-faced gravitas, like Moses descending from Mount Sinai. At the same time, neither am I tossing it out with a wink and a nudge, like the cynical irony of some Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Somewhere between these extremes of naïve sincerity and self-conscious irony, there’s a sweet spot, an oscillatory dance between this earnest attempt at collective Meaning and an all-too-aware recognition that what we are doing here is ultimately only playing towards something.
Cultural theorists call the sensibility I’ve just described “metamodern,” an increasingly prevalent attitude that dances between irony and sincerity, naïveté and knowingness, idealism and pragmatism. That is the spirit in which this work is to be read. So feel free to balk at the audacity of it all, chastise it for being too naïve and maybe even too dangerous, and certainly bound to fail. Then recall how many people are killing themselves out of despair and meaninglessness, and how quickly the world is being destroyed by nihilists and fundamentalists.
It is in that ambivalent tension that I hope you continue reading—for it was in that tension that this book was written.
Jamie Wheal is one metamodern thinker exploring this terrain, but there are many others. Perhaps most notably, John Vervaeke, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and creator of the immensely popular YouTube series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, has been working diligently to lay the groundwork for something similar: what he calls “the religion that’s not a religion”—a decidedly science-friendly paradigm that avoids both nihilism and fundamentalism by facilitating transformation and transcendence through a diverse “ecology of practices.”
Informed by his study of cognitive science, religion, and philosophy, and drawing upon works such as The Religion of the Future by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, Vervaeke sees the urgent need for functional religio, mythos, and communitas beyond outmoded supernaturalism. “And so I propose to you,” he says in Episode 39 of his series,
we need to do something like what religion used to do. We need a comprehensive set of psychotechnologies that are set within communities of practices that allow for the comprehensive transformations of consciousness, cognition, character, and culture in a way that is analogous to religion. That is what we're looking for.
In conversations with culture architects like Jordan Hall, Layman Pascal, and myself, Vervaeke brings a design mentality to the future of spirituality, considering what organizational principles might guide it and by what means it might be scaled.
Though admittedly fraught with challenges, and probably a moonshot ultimately, this is precisely the way we need to be thinking at the moment, when society is growing perilously more unstable by the day and the future is up for grabs. While only 10 years ago it would have sounded utterly preposterous to be talking in terms of architecting new religions and co-creating worldviews, today these sorts of projects are at the cutting edge of systems change activism and civilizational design. More and more, people are realizing that to fix the unimaginably knotty problems our society faces requires intervention at levels never before imagined. Fortunately, as our problems become more profound, so does the leading edge of our thought, so that even as we grapple with the prospect of global civilizational breakdown and climatological catastrophe, we also have the conceptual tools to develop new spiritual frameworks and even whole worldviews that can meet these existential challenges head-on.
That is the context in which the ideas of Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity for the Metamodern World are being presented. While many have seen in the new science profound implications for spirituality, and some have even sought to apply these insights explicitly to theology and philosophy, no one has yet done what this book aims to do: namely, present a new religion based on their revolutionary insights, unequivocally and unabashedly. No one has yet said, as this book does, In these scientific revelations, we find truths big enough for a whole new kind of meaning.
Well, with all the earnestness borne of urgency, and just as much playfulness for requisite irony and honesty, I mean to do just that. Reframing the revolutionary insights of systems thinking and complexity science in terms of a spiritual tradition—one with its own cosmic story, ethical implications, and transformational practices—I mean to articulate an edifying new worldview that provides an alternative to both fundamentalism and nihilism.
In doing so, I hope to provide a place where both the rising Nones and “spiritual-but-not-religious” pioneers might feel at home. For this “religion that is not a religion” is truly not a religion to the extent that it is based on science, makes no dogmatic demands, and is only true to the extent that its claims bear out and its practices bear fruit—even as it is religion-like to the degree that it might cohere a moral community, offer efficacious meaning-making/sense-making tools, and help transform both individuals and societies into happier, healthier entities more open to flourishing in sustainable ways.
I believe it can.
In that sense, I consider this sincerely ironic intervention into the meaning crisis a religion in every sense, and one I personally believe to be true (yes, even as I acknowledge its fundamental constructedness).
This, my friend, is a religion of complexity—and Emergentism is a religion for our metamodern age.
Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity
So, what is Emergentism, exactly? Well, let’s start with the name. The concept of “emergence” and “emergent properties” has become crucial to the new science I have been referring to—nowadays known simply as “complexity science.” The basic idea is that, as things become more and more complex, completely novel and unpredictable phenomena arise—entirely new layers of reality, in fact, which behave according to their own laws and principles. These new levels are said to “emerge” out of interactions occurring lower down, and so possess their own unique “emergent properties” not reducible to their parts.
Complexity increases when more and more parts come together in deeper relational webs to form new wholes. When something new emerges, it creates the possibility of still newer relationships—and thus the possibility for still deeper complexity. So the process builds on itself.
In this way, the universe as a whole has been complexifying ever since it first emerged with a Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago. Since then, a number of higher and higher levels of phenomena have emerged, with each new layer adding upon the previous ones. First matter emerged, then life emerged from matter, then animal consciousness from life, then self-conscious awareness from animal consciousness. This is the big history that the new science has helped to establish and even mathematically describe.
The spiritual implications of this are vast and profound. The literal root meaning of the word “emerge” is “to rise out of (the water)” (its opposite being “submerge”). The image at the heart of this powerful scientific idea, then, is of something breaking forth from the waves that had covered and concealed it. Emergence is an uncovering, a revelation. It signals the appearance of something that had been latent, hidden, unrealized, finally bursting forth into the fullness of being.
According to the cosmology of the new science, consciousness itself is what has been breaking forth from its concealment in mere matter. The evolution of the cosmos has been unfolding so as to bring forth self-awareness and self-knowledge. The universe itself is waking up—including waking up to this very realization (through us). For we are that consciousness (though the inevitability of the emergence of intelligent life in the cosmos suggests we are likely not the only ones).
Emergentism takes these spiritual implications of the new science very seriously. If this really is the nature of reality, what does it mean for understanding our place in the cosmos? What does it mean for our relationship to ourselves, each other, and the Earth? What could it mean about the very idea of God?
Today, the implications of the new paradigm are clear enough, even if scientists remain professionally cautious and intellectuals characteristically wary of connecting the dots too explicitly or putting too fine a point on it. But, as the meaning crisis has made clear, a point is precisely what’s needed! There is no reason to hide from the profound vision of reality science has at last revealed to us. Indeed, we have every cause to embrace it, and render it in terms of ultimate significance as humanity has done throughout the ages: through the lens of the sacred, the sublime, the reverential and the holy. We should express our collective sense of cosmic meaning as humans always have, in religious terms.
That is what Emergentism invites us to do. While “emergentism” (small e) has been the conceptual paradigm at the heart of the new science, opening a window on a neo-holistic perspective across academia, Emergentism (capital E) is offered as a specific religious framework based on this paradigm shift, which seeks to open that same window for the spiritual and existential commitments of the human soul.
The rest of this book will attempt to suggest just what this could look like. It is divided into three major parts: Logos, Mythos, and Religio. Logos, meaning “rational study” and the root of words like “logic,” considers the intellectual history and scientific evidence behind Emergentism. Mythos, the root of “myth” and “mythology,” considers the theological, symbolic, and scriptural adaptation of such ideas into the religious register. Finally, Religio, the root of our word “religion,” which means both “tying back” to inherited traditions as well as “observance” of particular rituals and practices, considers the communal and enacted side of Emergentism.
As for the history and evidence, Chapter 1 begins by tracing the roots of our contemporary meaning crisis back to the transition from the traditional religious worldview to the early modern reductionist one. Chapter 2 completes this history, taking us through the paradigm shift that has since replaced reductionism with a neo-holistic approach referred to as complexity science. Chapter 3 looks at some unifying theories that have synthesized the insights of this new paradigm, leading us to a new understanding of the complexifying cosmos as a continually learning entity waking to deeper consciousness through sentient beings.
With the logos side of things established, we then explore the transposition of these ideas into the mythological register. Chapter 4 offers a hermeneutics (or interpretation) of the complexification story through a spiritual/theological lens. Chapter 5 attempts to render some of these ideas symbolically, with maps and icons of the Emergentist cosmos. Chapter 6 offers a “scriptural” rendition through sincerely ironic mythopoeia, supplemented with AI visuals.
Finally, the religious elements of tradition and practice are considered. Chapter 7 surveys some of the lineages, ancient and modern, in which Emergentism stands, while Chapter 8 outlines some of the ethical orientations and specific practices that characterize Emergentist living.
After all that, we’ll conclude with some summary reflections and invitations.
So—what do you say? Let’s ride that lightning, shall we? and see just what emerges on the other side…
(Notes for this chapter can be read online at https://www.brendangrahamdempsey.com/emergentism-notes)
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