Abstractions as Gods

December 28, 2022

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The notion of 'minds' or 'souls' or 'spirits' or 'parts' or 'malevolent children' recurs in many domains of cognition or in our interpretations of the world around us, but this analogy, once spoken, cannot be contained within the person. It immediately begins to press at the boundaries of agentic creatures like humans or other animals and spills into domains that we wouldn't otherwise be inclined to ascribe things like 'mind' or 'spirit' ... so why not lean into that?


We can use abstractions to get a handle on complex features of the world. By personalising centres of purpose in the world, we can better connect them to ideologies. This permits the crafting of ever more graceful solutions to our complex world.

The world is an incredibly complex place, and we have very limited ways of understanding it. We tend to obscure features of our experience behind abstractions, often giving them 'spirit-like' qualities to lend a handle to them. This is nothing new: shamanism and similar spiritual practices have long recognised abstractions in this way to help navigate the world. So why not lean into this? We can create "abstract gods" to give us a handle on the parts of the world we have little other way of handling. We can personify our abstractions, which makes the identification of their ways and means---their agendas---far clearer. This is the level at which humans operate best, and these abstract gods allow us to improve our dialogues with meaning, transforming our already graceful solutions to this complex world into a pinnacle of form.

This article doesn't entirely rely on, but is much informed by three previous articles: obscuring banalities, everything is ideology, and spirituality of the mind. So first, a quick reprise of the important ideas. Then a rough draft of the rest, because I've been trying to put these ideas down for quite some time and if I don't do it now I've thought of an in, I'm worried I never will.

A curious feature of our self-description is the tendency to obscure banal features of the human experience behind big, unique words. We don't refer to precise aspects of our stress or fear response, we refer instead to the dreaded 'amygdala'. We don't engage deeply with the complexities of oppressive power structures, we simply abstract to the 'cultural hegemony' and 'white privilege'. These kinds of abstractions become the name of enemies that would otherwise be too complicated to get a handle on.

I put off publishing that article for quite some time, because it didn't feel quite finished at the point I left it. We had these abstractions that helped us to better get a handle on the world, but which were left as malevolent children roaming the mind. Left to their own devices, they trended toward stopping us from apprehending the true nature of the thing in question. By relegating our negative emotions to the amygdala, for example, we lose personal contact with them and so, though it works to understand emotions on some superficial level, we might feel unable to control them. On some level, perhaps that is the point, as I noted:

If our moments of passion are all because of this little almond in our head, then we don't need to blame ourselves for it. It's not us who are close-minded or over-sensitive, as we might tell ourselves on our bad days. No---it's our amygdala.

But also, the point of abstracting them appears to give us a handle on them. Our emotions are so deeply tied to our way of being in the world it can be difficult to separate them from us, especially at times when this would be a helpful thing to do. It's in the midst of an anxiety attack that recognising the anxiety can be managed with breathwork, and not something that is a necessary part of being who we are.

So what is true here? Are abstractions good or not? I suspect that, in the same ways as ideologies can be good, so too can abstractions.

Abstractions as malevolent children

The motif of the abstractions as malevolent children kept returning to me. At first I was reminded of Internal Family Systems therapy. In IFS, we teach that people each contain many sub-personalities, or parts, that we can both identify and interact with. Though each 'part' has good intentions individually, they can be at odds with each other. Left unchecked, they can battle for supremacy and when some become overwhelmed we are left unwhole with all the distress that implies.

I'm not so sure we always need such an explicit approach to the idea that 'we each contain multitudes', but it certainly seems to help some people a great deal. I am also reminded of the Rarámuri, who believe:

that each moving body part has a unique soul, from the joints of the fingers to the 'heart' and the 'head'. These souls, or ariwi, must be cared for lest they become sick and the body begins to fail. In a sense, each of these bodily features have something like their own 'mind'---an agenda they pursue and needs to be met.

Which brings me to my second reprise, in spirituality of the mind:

Modern science of mind ... In chasing the elusive 'self', the organising principle of the mind, we have come up empty-handed. The 'mind' is not some unitary phenomenon, united by the self. Rather it's a 'society' of cognitive systems, a collection of modules, a scrabbling heap of unconscious processes. Discreet mental creatures, who when active produce some experience we interpret as a continuity of self. Or perhaps, if the self does exist, hiding out of sight somewhere, it is just another member of this varied society with its own agenda and perspective. This same 'society' seems not to end at the body, either. A notebook is nothing more than an extension of our memory into the world around us. Indeed all actions are an attempt to shape the world, and the world does its best to shape us too. If we zoom in closer, we see similar 'societies' at the level of the organ, or even the level of the cell. Each of these are small collections of processes that are functionally indistingishable from 'minds' in the academic sense. If we zoom out, we see that ecosystems and biospheres are something similar too.

These ideas are nothing new, of course. They are rediscovered by mystical spiritualists, and psychonauts with monotonous regularity. Similarly, they are rediscovered in a more intellectual fashion by scholars of consciousness, biologists, and physicists. Indeed, the best description for the non-spiritualist, I think, comes from E.O. Wilson's biologist's time machine.

The notion of 'minds' or 'souls' or 'spirits' or 'parts' or 'malevolent children' recurs in many domains, but this analogy, once spoken, cannot be contained within the person. It immediately begins to press at the boundaries of agentic creatures like humans or other animals and spills into domains that we wouldn't otherwise be inclined to ascribe things like 'mind' or 'spirit'.1

Abstractions as centres of purpose

Which brings us to our last reprise, in everything is ideology:

Ideologies are systems of ideas that both try to explain the world and change it. This picture of ideology is very close to a brain scientist's understanding of the brain. The brain also acts to explain the world and change it---to map our perceptions of the world to the action possibilities that exist. Our ideas about the world cannot go very far beyond these action possibilities---it is difficult to imagine things that don't overlap, such as a 5-dimensional structure, or the nature of quantum objects for example. The world, as it exists to us, is not objective then. It can only ever be comprised of those things that are meaningfully connected with our being in it. We cannot perceive or conceive of it otherwise. More importantly, everything in the world is impossibly interconnected---it is impossible to draw a distinct boundary around where I start and the world around me ends, for example---the meanings that we perceive change depending on the circumstance. A fishpond is water in a depression, but at times it also includes the concrete floor, the pipes that provide the water, or the air just above it. The lines we draw around things are defined by their purpose as it relates to our being in the world at the time. This is what an ideology is. Not a distortion of the truth, but a frame we are using to transform chaos into meaning, and in doing so, sacrificing some meaning to chaos.

At this level of analysis, nothing can be exactly bounded. Where does the fishpond stop? What makes a window a window? Some features of these things are obvious, but the non-obvious ones matter just as much. The fishpond is not a pond without the air above it, or the land it sits within, even as those things are not really the pond. The window is nothing at all without the structure it is embedded in, or the thing that it looks over, but it is also not really those things. So, as I describe in that article, maybe better to use Christopher Alexander's notion of fields of 'centredness'. The pond is a 'centre' defined by their purpose to us; their meaning. There is no need to put a limit on a centre---it just helps us focus our attention. But at the same time, it also implies that other things can be the centre of attention. This is what ideologies are---a focus of attention defined by their purpose.

Abstractions as intentional spirits

Recognise that while many centres of purpose are defined by our being in the world, many centres of purpose are also defined by the being in the world of other things too. That something doesn't need to be be an agent to have an agenda.

Organs are a good example of this. Organs are systems that you wouldn't characterise as alive, but nonetheless have business to attend to. The liver is responsible for over 500 discrete functions. If this isn't an agenda, I don't know what is. Even your fat has stuff to do. It doesn't just sit there, useless. Cancer cells are basically immortal cells, replicating out of control. This both hints at a possible agenda you'd really prefer to avoid, and a complicated agenda of balanced cell division and death that cells normally studiously attend to. I have made note before about just how close the Raramuri's souls and our organs are, conceptually. Both need special nourishing, both have special plans. Both are ways of thinking about centres of purpose, both ours and theirs.

The idea that sparked this train of thought was the notion of our mental 'malevolent children'---the abstraction of features of the world into a more helpful personification. This, too, is hardly new. I once wrote of

shamanism---the religion that gave birth to all religions, and the one that is recognisable across time, culture, and geography. Shamans or witch doctors or medicine men, wherever they appear, interact with the spirit world by altering their consciousness. The universal aspect of shamanism is the existence of a 'second reality'. This alternate reality is the place where one can commune with the spirits. Shamans, by entering a trance state, may journey there and enlist the help of these spirits in a variety of tasks. The specifics will vary of course, and the 'two realities' metaphor hardly captures the richness of shamanistic theology (an indeed forces an improbably distinct structure upon it). It is nevertheless useful for a brief discussion.

Whether we interpret these spirits as literal spirits, and this alternate reality as a literal alternate reality, or perhaps instead prefer to view this as another method of shaking loose the rigid patterns of the self and seeing the world and its many interrelationships from new perspectives, there is no doubt that the utility of this practice is such that it arises independently in any indigenous or tribal culture that lasted long enough to provide a record of their existence.

Entire traditions revolve around the recognition of abstractions of just the very type we started off with. Abstractions, centres of purpose, or spirits that allow us to get a handle on parts of the world we have little other way of handling.

The pushback, of course, will almost certainly be something along epistemological lines. Modern, secular, western culture hates this kind of knowledge production. We much prefer the empiricism of the scientific method.

But, that is often not very different at the practical level of handling things. Medicine is often very helpful, but you have no idea how it works. Indeed, more frequently than is comfortable to admit, no one does. So though the scientific method describes more of the world to some people---the specialists in those domains---for the rest of us, we are left with the abstractions we must create, or that those specialists create for us to get a handle on it.2

Is there a better way of thinking about things like entropy than by noting its similarity to a trickster god? What about an ideal like truth---how better to seek her out than to give her an idyllic shape? The climate, though she has a clear mood trending toward the heat of anger, leaves even specialists puzzled by her moment by moment expressions of this. We already personify the ocean, and the ships that sail her. It's a natural instinct. Abstractions are often, already spirits, and if not lend themselves well to spiritification. Why not make it so explicitly?

The value of spiritification

I have talked already about the drawbacks of this kind of thinking. There is always the chance that your abstraction leads you off in the wrong direction. Amygdalas aren't demons, nor are the emotions they produce. Emotions motivate us to act, and so by demonising them you are demonising your motivations, rather than recognising and addressing them. Robin DiAngelo's version of white privilege does little but obscure its many manifestations. It simply totalises the phenomenon and leaves us with little room to respond, but to cathartically self-flagellate and then move on.

But in honesty, this is merely the result of laziness. The same premise upon which this site is built---to choose your ideologies---is the same premise upon which one could build reasonable abstractions. Graceful solutions to complex problems that have been examined before being instituted. For this, there are many tools.

But the value in spiritification is clear, if we take our cues from Eliade's concept of kratophanies and hierophanies. Anything can be a manifestation of power for us---anything can hold meaning. A sentimental ring or teddybear. A favourite song. A particularly pretty feather. These kratophanies are transient things. Sentimentality fades. Favourite songs become overplayed. The sheen of the feather dulls. But if we unite these kratophanies with a deeper structure, then they become meanings we can have a dialogue with---something sacred---a hierophany. The ring and song and feather all tied to a lover mean that the power of these things will never quite fade. We can have a dialogue with and between these objects---they speak to each other, and to you, and the moments they and you shared with your lover.

If we do the same thing for our abstractions, we can have a dialogue with them too. We have hinted at how this might look for anxieties or distress. But lets look at things a little more out of the box.

The god of civilisation

I read once that an old but deep notion is that abstract ideas can take form as Lovecraftian monsters. If there's anything that feels true of, it would be modern civilisation over the past two or three years. Despite Stephen Pinker's optimism, it's difficult not to notice the bloom of nihlism, outrage, yearning, and terror that characterises our media streams. The general sense is eerily reminiscent of that written into books about the counterculture movement of the 60s, a time similarly marked by a chronic sense of instability and uncontrollability.

Fortunately, I don't have to spend too much time spiritifying civilisation, because it was famously done for me. Scott Alexander, almost a decade ago, wrote about Ginsberg's Moloch (pt II):

Moloch is introduced as the answer to a question -- C. S. Lewis' question in Hierarchy Of Philosophers -- what does it? Earth could be fair, and all men glad and wise. Instead we have prisons, smokestacks, asylums. What sphinx of cement and aluminum breaks open their skulls and eats up their imagination?

And Ginsberg answers: Moloch does it.

There's a passage in the Principia Discordia where Malaclypse complains to the Goddess about the evils of human society. "Everyone is hurting each other, the planet is rampant with injustices, whole societies plunder groups of their own people, mothers imprison sons, children perish while brothers war."

The Goddess answers: "What is the matter with that, if it's what you want to do?"

Malaclypse: "But nobody wants it! Everybody hates it!"

Goddess: "Oh. Well, then stop."

The implicit question is -- if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And Ginsberg answers: "Moloch". It's powerful not because it's correct -- nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything -- but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn't an agent.

Alexander details ten examples of Moloch prosecuting its agenda, but I'll give you a shorter one. When one person stands up at a concert in order to get a better view of the stage, all the other spectators have to follow suit or risk having their view blocked. This, of course, doesn't improve the view of the stage for anyone, and all the attendees have to remain standing for the remainder of the performance.

No one is to blame but the civilising force---the act of one forcing the acts of others, and the social structures that make it so. But abstracting it thus---identifying 'Moloch'---allows us to have a dialogue with these moments. If not to improve them, at least to better recognise them and perhaps avoid them in the first place.

Indeed one wonders if this god of civilisation isn't precisely the right way to characterise the power structures which 'wokeness' concerns itself with. The power structures that so infiltrate every strata and process of life such that each attempt at excising them is thwarted or subverted… very godlike, no?

And if we pose much of the racism and other forms of oppression as the influence of some lovecraftian monster, we begin to grapple better with what otherwise seem like unfair or untrue personal attacks.

The god of ideas

There is this much maligned, 19th Century approach to the study of history---the Great man theory. Wikipedia summarises well:

history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes: highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, extraordinary leadership abilities or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect.

The maligning is fairly well-earned. The better theory of history is the one that recognises that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

The 'great men' of history are nothing more than an emblem of an enormous swath of contributions across people and time. J. E. Gordon illustrates this very well in his book, Structures, or why things don't fall down. The famous Roman Arch was not designed with careful mathematics. It was designed with dead reckoning and hundreds of years of trial-and-error. Many discoveries are no different, except at some point along the way we slap a face to the process. This didn't happen with the Roman arch, but it did happen with late modern theatre: all of Shakespeare's plays were an adaptation. That link details all 38 of his plays and their source material. He is merely the face of a process of creation that, to be fair, still goes on today.

There is, of course, the argument that we should discount these great men more than we do:

What credence should we assign to philosophical claims that were formed without any knowledge of the current state of the art of the philosophical debate and little or no knowledge of the relevant empirical or scientific data?

But I suspect that spiritifying them is a better solution. By recognising the god of ideas---this force that sweeps through time and place to refine ideas until they are good enough to, in a very successful prophets manner, manifest as a 'great person' of history---a face that marks a turning point, a point at which the god made itself known to us. In this way we can both recognise the ideas as well as their context, while both accounting for any flaws that come by assigning those ideas to a person rather than a process, but also allowing room for more than one face. The face is not important, the process is. The god of ideas allows you to engage in much more nuance around the idea.

The god of gods

I'd never come across (or noticed, perhaps) the concept of Teotl before this year, despite having more than a passing interest in the cognitive science of religion. But this year, it appeared so many times I felt forced to shoehorn it into one of my articles:

James Maffie tells us of the core principle of the Ancient Aztec view of the nature of things. At the root of their metaphysics lies a single, basic, unifying energy which underlies everything:

At the heart of Aztec metaphysics stands the ontological thesis that there exists just one thing: continually dynamic, vivifying, self-generating and self-regenerating sacred power, force, or energy. The Aztecs referred to this energy as teotl. Teotl is identical with reality per se and hence identical with everything that exists. What's more, teotl is the basic stuff of reality. That which is real, in other words, is both identical with teotl and consists of teotl. Aztec metaphysics thus holds that there exists numerically only one thing -- energy -- as well as only one kind of thing -- energy. Reality consists of just one thing, teotl, and this one thing is metaphysically homogeneous. Reality consists of just one kind of stuff: power or force... What's more, the Aztecs regarded teotl as sacred. Although everywhere and in everything, teotl presents itself most dramatically -- and is accordingly sensed most vibrantly by humans -- in the vivifying potency of water, sexual activity, blood, heat, sunlight, jade, the singing of birds, and the iridescent blue-green plumage of the quetzal bird. As the single, all-encompassing life force of the cosmos, teotl vivifies the cosmos and all its contents. Everything that happens does so through teotl's perpetual energy-in-motion

Upon reflection this concept is strikingly similar to many other mystic pinnacles. The Chinese concept of Dao, for example, "can be roughly thought of as the flow of the Universe or as some essence or pattern behind the natural world that keeps the Universe balanced and ordered.". The Vedic Ṛta is similarly the "the principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it". The Christian concept of God, in the theology that explores His character, is riddled with His historical descent from the Ancient Greek concept of an utterly simple, ineffable, unknowable subsistence which is both the creative source of the Universe.

It should be noted that such parallels are easy to draw from the surface and without expertise, but the words used in the texts (or their translations) are all astoundingly similar to words spoken by people who feel god, or gods, or divine forces. And indeed, the general sense is all perfectly familiar to anyone who has eaten enough mushrooms.

What is most striking about this particular abstraction is both how close, and how far it is from a more stereotypical god. A clear emphasis on a creative force, rather than an agent. An order or process, even. But in its identification, perhaps the greatest depth of feeling can be encountered with some reliability.

The most obvious manifestation of this is the recurring concept of mana, across various cultures. In moments of special meaning, or awe, or joy, we have somehow accessed some fragment of this creative force and allowed it to work through us.

A less obvious manifestation comes in the form possibly the oldest and most universal religious tradition---a potion, administered typically by women, that helped you transcend death and become one with god, if only for a short time.

Or, simply in Maslow's peak and plateau experiences. You don't need to travel far to find the value of this abstraction as god in making the world a more beautiful place.


I have, for now, run out of steam. But for the sake of the new year I'll publish this as a draft.

Louis L'Amour once wrote:

There are shadows for the shadows of things, as a reflection seen in a mirror of a mirror. We know there are circles within circles and dimensions beyond dimension. Reality is itself a shadow, only an appearance accepted by those whose eyes shun what might lie beyond

This site is, much less poetically, about that very same thing. An impossibly complex world, perceptible to us only at the places at which we overlap. But we, of all the animals, can extend that perception with a little cognitive energy. By identifying centres of purpose, and the things that make them purposeful; by discovering the connections between these ideologies; by discovering our abstract gods and using them to improve our dialogues with meaning. This transforms our already graceful solutions to this complex world that have been chosen for us into their pinnacle of form.

  1. I'd be remiss if I didn't at least gesture at some point to the human teliological and agentic biases often characterised by scholars in the cognitive science of religion. These are more prettily detailed in books like Ara Norenzayan's Big Gods, but are essentially evolutionary accounts of our bias toward ascribing agency to things and processes, because it helps us navigate the world better. This is fundamentally what I'm arguing here, but I don't think there's much value in pointing out that it also might have been an evolutionary adaption. 

  2. Incidentally, the science communication channel Kurzgesagt has a bloody fantastic video that explains the necessity of this. 

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