Ecology of Minds Without Bodies [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes, 31 seconds. Contains 2905 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter in transition.
We talk about weirdness breaking into the real world, and reshaping things when we’re not looking.
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Today we’re going to follow up our last exploration of Tulpas with a bit of fieldwork into the worlds of nonphysical intelligence.
That’s a big subject and I’m going to sidestep many cultural issues by ignoring most traditional depictions of spirits and all closed practices. So don’t expect much about, say, Djinn, Deva, or Golems. This makes our account Eurocentric, but it’s a decent enough place to start.
Seeing As We Are
We’re gonna arc into the subject from a weird direction: Conventional academia.
More specifically anthropology.
OK, I’m kind of lying here. I’m not going to give you any kind of formal account of the conventional view. I’m WAY too green when it comes to anthropology.
But I want to paint a couple of things together.
"HUMAN BEINGS: This species is a dear, hateful, sweet, barbaric, tender, vile, intelligent, confused, virtuous, evil, thoughtful, perverted, generous, greedy species.
In short, great entertainment." -George Carlin, Brain Droppings
I first read Brain Droppings in high school and this little line hit me like a bomb.
Humans are optimized for drama.
What could explain such a situation?
Put, uh, a pin in that.
The General Intelligence Tangent
One of the core ideas in the concept of IQ is G, a hypothetical variable that measures the factor that influences human general intelligence.
Let’s not get too hung up on definitions of intelligence. We’ll probably reach the heat death of the universe before someone makes an adequate full definition.
But a working definition is many animals behave very intelligently under narrow circumstances, whereas humans (and a few others like Cephalopods, Corvids, and other Primates) can apply intelligence way more broadly.
Ex. Many spiders are hyperspecialized to one or two killer tricks they use to get food.
But in a novel situation, they’re much more helpless. That’s contextual intelligence. We used to package it into instinct, and some of it definitely is inborn, but there’s a lot of variation there and it’s all besides the point.
The point is humans, maybe, have this G-Factor that lets us solve problems in any situation.
And, yes, we’re going to set aside IQ’s validity here. It’s just a common way to frame the discussion.
So, if some animals have a G-factor and some don’t, what’s the difference? How did humans pull so far ahead of the animal kingdom?
We could tackle this from lots of angles, but I want to bend things here and go with a literary angle.
In 1856, British Cultural Critic John Ruskin coined the term The Pathetic fallacy. It’s a fancy phrase for the tendency of people to ascribe human qualities and agency to nonhuman and/or inanimate things.
He was trying to critique the Romantic poetry of his era, but his term (from pathos, greek for emotions), is important to consider in the context of our conversation.
We can chain together some other related ideas like anthropomorphism, Jungian projection, and human-centrism and get a broadly applicable principle: We see the world as we are, not as it is.
And what we see in the world is agency, because we feel we have Agency.
So what does this have to do with general intelligence?
Tratsch Uber Alles
So right now we have human intelligence, the tendency of that intelligence to see itself, and a human penchant for drama.
How do these things combine with each other?
Assuming evolution is true, at some point, forces acting on natural selection pushed humans in the direction we’re traveling now.
One of those forces is gossip.
People talking about each other when the other isn’t around is a driving force in human evolution.
Status testing and Status games are universal among humans.
Gossip increases an individual’s options for status games.
Human communities are extremely connection dense and knowing how to address complex, shifting situations.
Because gossip involves navigating ambiguity it forces the brain to expand neuroplasticity and thus open up additional neural pathways.
Now, this isn’t a scientific theory. I’ve seen a few anthropologists suggest similar things but I’ve never bothered to try and follow up to see how valid it is.
It just seems kind of self-evidently true. We’d expect whatever forces were in play during the evolution of the G-Factor to be present today to some extent.
But why do I see the gossip factor as a driver? Simple, it’s goddamn everywhere. Community and celebrity news were pretty much the first things put online, they make tons of money in the media, and many of the biggest websites are themselves just structured gossip.
What are Twitter or Facebook if not a place to pose for higher status?
Nature of the beast.
And we've seen what happens when someone is raised outside this milieu of human status competition: Feral Children.
Without human social communities, we do not develop our potential.
(We’ll come back to Feral Children later)
We can even see the G-factor in play in one of the more obnoxious quotes:
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
This is one of those quotes that gets attributed to whoever the quoter thinks is smart. One of the possible sources is this bit:
“Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.” -Charles Stewart, quoting his friend and history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle
Obviously, you can see why the trimmed-down quote is more popular.
But the point is less about the source than the sentiment: Anyone can gossip, but more abstraction is the sign of a more developed mind.
Now, this ability to decontextualize is very useful but it’s easy to detach from actual reality or people.
There’s a whole fascinating discussion of cultural bias and neurodiversity here I’m just gonna skip past. I recall a study in college about African tribal people who were asked to pair sets of tools and the objects they worked on.
This was part of an attempt to find less culturally bound ways of testing intelligence but it ran into an assumption the researchers didn’t expect: The people they were testing didn’t abstract in the way they expected: They kept the pairs of tool and object used together rather than ordering them into tools and food or plants.
A completely practical way of thinking about it, but the researchers were kind of baffled by it.
And, of course, I don’t really understand how Autism fits into my notion here. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that different relationships to evolving social relationships wouldn’t occasionally create people who think quite differently than your “typical” person.
Gossip and Agency
I’m going to return to this when we get to cybernetics, but I think one of the core ideas in developing gossip skills is recognizing who else is doing stuff in your social network.
My favorite demonstration of this in modern pop culture is Michael Pena’s character in Ant-Man explaining how he knows stuff.
But if you’re competing with someone in a gossip fight you’ve got to identify the source. Who’s saying what? What are they trying to do?
Who’s making moves?
And now we can get into the meat of today’s episode? Issue?
This thing we’re doing.
An Ecology of Minds
It’s perhaps obvious where I’m going with all of this.
If we have minds built or influenced by gossiping, selection pressures that pushed us to become more intelligent, and we project our own ideas about agency onto other people and things… well, how do we know that’s not just what we’re doing with all these weird occult ideas of thought-forms?
That’s hard to say.
Let’s start with a practical image of the field we’re discussing. I think of mind as a kind of place more than a thing. One with somewhat messy relationship with time and space.
Brains focus and organize that into something useful to the organism.
Let’s not dwell too much on the details there, these are metaphors, but we should get some kind of sense before moving on. So let’s imagine the world as crass 19th-century materialism would describe it as a beach.
It’s one of those big public beaches with lots of crap to do, easy to forget the ocean if you’re not looking for it. And the sun is warm and friendly as it slowly kills us all.
This is what we might call naive realism. The world is as it appears to be.
Lots of people play in the waves and relatively few venture into the shallows. There’s a lifeguard on duty and buoys marking out the safe place to swim.
This level is everyday creativity. Flights of fancy, daydreaming, new ideas. etc. The water’s cool and it’s not too dangerous as long as you stay within the lifeguard’s watch.
Past the buoys though, is deep creativity, people bringing back big or important ideas.
Of course, there aren’t any maps past the lifeguard. He keeps people trapped but also away from the worst dangers.
And how far does the ocean go? I certainly can’t tell you.
The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. -Hunter S Thompson
OK, so this is mixing some metaphors but the point is that there’s a LOT more ocean than anyone on land suspects. That quote from Joseph Campbell about psychotics drowning in the same water mystics swim in?
And the point is that we’re not alone out there.
Braver swimmers than me have tried to come up with a taxonomy of what’s out there.
But let’s return to the shore conceptually. I tend to think things are most interesting on the boundaries: Shore to shallows, shallows to buoy nets, shallows to the deeps, and… whatever else is there.
Taxonomy Of Minds Or Illusions
We’ve taken this long way around to address this subject because I didn’t want anyone to have an easy escape to certainty.
Leaving the firm ground of the beach means becoming more comfortable with ambiguity.
Now, first, a warning: I’m not doing a bit here, I don’t know for sure how real any of this is. I’ve seen first-hand interactions with them which seem to defy simple causality.
In my younger days, I was a reckless swimmer and did a lot of things I’d warn against. The shallows are lovely. There’s no point in leaving them if you can avoid it.
We discussed Thought Forms in the last read, so let’s take a look at a few other things you might find out there.
Because we’re mostly in either Europe or places dominated by their descendants, it’s best to start with Demons.
But Demons didn’t come by on their own, they were a kind of a Jewish and later Christian grafting and recontextualizing of Mediteranian mythology and folk stories.
Before we had demons, there were daemons.
As we might expect from a word summarizing a wide slew of ideas from more than a millenia of cultural practice, Daemon can refer to a lot of different things.
Probably the most obvious are quasi-minor gods personifying specific concepts, many are the children of major dieties like Phobos and Deimos (fear and dread) are two of Ares sons.
There’s a whole big list of them and if you place it next to our Pathetic Fallacy from earlier you earned yourself a raised eyebrow and knowing “Hmmmmmm”.
But these were merely the ones with names. There’s a whole host of minor daemons, part mortal and part divine, who serve as messengers, servants, and even spies for the gods. Some were mortal heroes raised up for their virtues and others were preexisting spirits.
And the last version comes to us from Plato and maybe Socrates, the latter of whom claimed he was gifted with a kind of supernatural “divine sign” sometimes translated as daemon, which warned him when he was about to make a mistake.
Digression: In one of Plato’s dialogues, a boy “in the flower of youth” asks Socrates if he should take an older lover, and if so how he should decide who and Socrates starts explaining that he should pick a lover who would teach him virtue and care about his well being, not just use him for sex.
(And yes, Greek pederasty is gross, but there’s no point in pretending it wasn’t common practice)
Anyway, Plato’s “divine sign” rolls up and effectively tells him, “Bro, the kid thinks you’re flirting with him. Gotta bail asap”
And so Plato makes some excuse and runs the hell away.
Plato/Socrates ideas of Daemons were a kind of external to yourself guidance, a role spirits or gods could play. The former even said everyone had a Daemon or genuis to guide them.
These Greek ideas helped shape the mysticism of the Roman Republic and then Empire. So by the time Christianity took over the Empire in 323 AD, the conversion process from Daemon (or Genius if you prefer the Roman version) to Demon.
The Christian Empire had a more political use for the concept: Recontextualizing all their enemies as demon worshippers.
We can see this strategy repeated today with the Satanic Panic and Qanon.
After the fall of the western Roman empire, Demonology would largely become the province of Priests studying obscure texts only they had access to and the skills/time to read.
And from the middle ages towards the Enlightenment, Demonology began mutating towards modern ideas of Satan worship & witchcraft. The exact evolution of all this is complicated and we can dive further into it if you like but I recommend this podcast to go the rest of the way.
The point, though, is that where Daemons had their own purposes and plans, Demons were always malicious. They stopped being messengers or guides and started being tempters.
Mind you, we’re glossing over more than a thousand years of theology so this is all pretty basic stuff.
We’re going to touch on one more thing before moving on to the other kinds of “spirits” today: John Dee.
Dee was an English scholar, spy, and occultist who worked under Elizabeth the 1st. Alongside Edward Kelley, he created the First Language of God-Christ, called Enochian.
We could have a field day for the guy, but I wanted to make a point here that even at this date (almost a centry after the malleus maleficarum set off hundreds of years of moral panics), Europeans were still trying to commune with “good” spirits.
Dee attempted to use this language in his persuit of otherworldly knowledge and, hell, maybe he succeeded. Dude did alright for himself.
And there are plenty of other systems of spirits, probably most famously being the 72 demons of the Lesser Key of Solomon, which charts the names, sigils, and methods to contact and deal with these demons as well as how to scry, contact angels, and give a magician perfect recall.
Not really my department.
All these forms of spirit, though, are preexisting. And that’s not the only option in town.
Though, I’m looking at this wordcount and it’s already 2500 words in and we’re already a week late in publishing.
Alright, let’s make this simple. We’ll be back with the rest in a day or two.
But first let me leave you with a bit of suspense around my favorite occult topic: Egregores. The following is from Patrick Dunn’s excellent book Postmodern-Magic.
Pulling things together
Today we’ve discussed a broad outline of how Greek daemons slowly became the Romanized Genius and then Christianized Demons.
I wanted to juxtapose this w/ Tulpas from last episode, evolutionary biology, and human-linked spirits for a couple reasons.
The biggest one is when dealing with the occult, I think it’s best to start with skepticism. The implication I’ve left hanging over all this is these ideas are basically delusions: perceptual glitches and some misreading signs and omens to make them more, uh, spooky.
And I think the gossip-as-feedback-loop-to-push-humans-towards-additional intelligence is good evidence of this happening. Once you start imagining agency outside yourself, there’s no reason to keep that to people.
Such imagining has fueled poetry for far longer than written language, I suspect.
But poetry is no basis for epistomology. And art cannot give us specific knowledge of the nature of reality.
We must poke and prod it and determine that for ourselves. ;-)
And that’s what we’re here to do.
Of course, we must now address my contribution to us. The character I play on this newsletter, Stephen, is retiring.
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Alright, see you next time.
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"We can chain together some other related ideas like anthropomorphism, Jungian projection, and human-centrism and get a broadly applicable principle: We see the world as we are, not as it is."
I am in the midst of another course from the guys at "Weird Studies" right now, and I am noticing you seem to taking a bit of a different direction on the topic of what could loosely be called "animism / pan-psychism" or to make it more specific the basic question of whether or not there are forces out there which have their own "objectivity" aside from being simply a construction/projection of the human psyche... I can see you are maybe implying a bit of a cybernetic feedback loop happening? I notice you often tend to go in the solipsistic direction or at least toy with it? I've been listening to JF Martel talk about "The Radical Alterity of Being". Each thing has it's own unique individuality, it's own "suchness", as if God created each daisy, each little pebble one by one because he loved each one so much.
I do like the way you handled the Demon stuff, some good points were made about how Daemons have been "demonized" over time. Maybe in ancient times, if a person was feeling horny they were "possessed by a spirit of lust", anthropomorphizing something which today we might just say "oh it must have been hormones", we don't need the anthropomorphic spiritism because we have the scientific law of causation.
However you could go a bit of a different direction, you could see these kinds of spirits as being kind of like "animal urges" and then see the kind of man/animal duality represented in mythic figures like the Satyr or Pan, and the whole myth about Pan and Nymphs.. How that Goat symbol has been turned into something Satanic, but the Satanic is just a code for Pagan ie) pre-Christian.
In James Hillman's Pan and the Nightmare he talks about this idea of that Nightmare creatures are often hairy/animal like, or there is this association between fear and sex, like the classic horror movie tropes of make out scene interrupted by the monster/killer... and there is something there that comes out of what the Jungian's call the "unconscious" as the symbol of something a bit like a man, but maybe it has goat like horns, or hooves... and then we call this thing charged with fear or repressed sexual energy "demonic".
Reminded me of the Machiavelli quote saying something like that there are three types of minds, 1 can understand on its own and is most excellent, 2 can understand if given examples and explanations and is also excellent, 3 does not understand even with explanations and examples and is useless.