Emergence, twelve-step and ecology

There is a perennial problem for some people on entering a twelve-step programme, of which they get a glimpse at step 2 (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”) and which becomes all too apparent at step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”). That problem is when they don’t have a concept of God, usually because they’re an atheist. In fact, it’s so common in UK twelve step that I was plagued in my early days with well-meaning people sharing how they had come to think of, say, the AA group, or “Good Orderly Direction” or just “Good” as being their higher power for the purposes of the steps, assuming that I’d be an atheist too. I got a little tired of having to explain that I had a very well-formed concept of God already, thank you, and that my problem was more that I had lost confidence in ever experiencing God again, not to mention being helped by God (severe depression, it seems, can do that to even a practiced mystic, and I’ve written previously about “dark nights of the soul”).

This was a problem which faced Nancy Abrams on entering a twelve step programme aimed at over-eating. She found an interesting way round, much aided by her long acquaintance with her husband Joel Primack, a prominent astrophysicist and cosmologist, and has written a fascinating book about it: “A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet”. This caught my eye last week, and on an intuition I bought it.

Amazon thinks it’s directed at “agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious and scientifically minded” readers; I’d bet she’d want to include outright atheists. Actually, I think it’s worth reading by a whole gamut of people, with the proviso that anyone with conservative or even mainstream views is going to find it’s suggestions alarming, if not downright unacceptable. Liberal, progressive or radical believers shouldn’t have too much difficulty, though.

I’m particularly pleased to have bought it, as Nancy takes the phenomenon of emergence and posits that God may be an emergent property of human minds as a group, which is a thought I’ve entertained myself – I grant that it doesn’t represent the way it seems to me that God is, but I am willing to consider hypotheses which would require that my own experience has delivered a less-than-wholly-accurate picture. Indeed, I assume there’s a high probability that despite the hugely self-confirming nature of the mystical experience, there’s at least a degree of distortion as well as the notoriously fuzzy nature of the experience. She, however, picks up the idea and runs with it, describing various levels of emergence and dwelling for a while on the ant colony, which displays organisation and reasoning beyond the capacity of any individual ant.

She goes on to discuss emergent phenomena among humans, citing the example of “the market” (here meaning that amorphous entity which seems to rule us rather more than do our elected representatives) and “the media”, which seems to have a character beyond just a conglomeration of writers. Then she takes the next step… and I think it’s by no means an unreasonable one.

Then, however, she introduces parameters some of which sit uneasily with my current God-concept, notably the limitation on communication of the speed of light, rendering an emergent entity bigger than (perhaps) planetary scale one which could not “think” within a timescale which would render it capable of communication with humanity. Another is the fact that until the emergence of human consciousness, the matrix for the emergence of such a higher level entity would be missing – and it would certainly be missing in the earlier part of the history of our universe (which the writer’s husband is able to model using computers to an impressive degree of accuracy). That, of course, would mean both that a God-of-the-universe would be improbable-to-impossible and that any concept of a creator-God was completely out of the window, and both of those are at the moment features of my God-concept, and considerably protected by the self-verifying feature of mystical experience. Not necessarily ruled out, however…

She does give what I think is a good account of the implications of accepting such a God-concept, including an account of the efficacy of prayer. That last I will need to re-read, as I am a little uncertain that I agree her mechanisms, but it is at least on the face of it plausible.

I think, therefore, that this book could be very helpful to many sceptical people embarking on twelve-step programmes, or even a few who have been around them for years – at the very least, it provides an option which is rather more concrete than “good orderly direction” and rather less prone to human error than the twelve-step group.

But I have a serious misgiving, and that lies exactly with the examples of higher-order emergence among humans which she puts forward. Neither the media nor the market (still less the “global economy”) seem to me good examples of higher powers for twelve-step or, indeed, more or less anything else (pace those of my acquaintance who look very much as if they worship the market…). The market and the global economy, indeed, seem to me forces which are potentially, even if not actually, extremely inimical to the flourishing of humanity when considered as thinking, feeling, connected, social people rather than as units of economic production and consumption, and I’d certainly characterise them both as less-than-human, if only on grounds of ethics. Crowds, too, inasmuch as through deindividuation they operate as entities in their own right, are definitely subhuman. If there were another entity of the kind Ms. Abrams describes, I would worry that unless it were in fact the God whom I experience (and thus am confident is benevolent and loving), it would be yet another faceless and impersonal power which had the capacity to damage or even exterminate humanity.

To be fair, I also have friends whose conception of Gaia looks a lot like that. Of course, both they and Ms. Abrams consider that we should do much to reverse the extremely negative effect which humanity is currently having on our planet and particularly its biosphere, and I agree completely with them on that front. The thought that the planet as a whole might decide (have decided?) to eliminate humanity as a kind of cancerous growth, however, is still not a pleasant one to contemplate. Even if it is possibly overdue… which may be the best indication that actually it doesn’t exist as such a system.

The problem, to me, with my Gaian friends is that while they see the wholeness and unity of the earth, there is a tendency to see us as alientated from it, as not a part of the whole. This is something I emphatically don’t share, and neither does Ms. Abrams, who ends her book with an impassioned plea to treat the planet as if we, as a species, actually intend to stay here for a while. To this end, she has a number of promises, some very reminiscent of those I am familiar with. Here are a few:-

We will intuitively understand how the future of our descendants depends on the future of their descendants.

We will experience how being human fits smoothly and perfectly into the evolution of a meaningful yet scientifically supported universe.

And, last but not least:-

We will suddenly realise that the emerging God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

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