Re: re. explanatory coherence

Aaron Lynch (
Wed, 06 Aug 1997 13:58:31 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 06 Aug 1997 13:58:31 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: re. explanatory coherence
In-Reply-To: <c=SG%a=_%p=TP%l=STAFF-EXCHA-970806070736Z-215683@staff-exc hange.TP.AC.SG>

Aaron Lynch responding to Alex Brown:

HISTORY, by Rodney Stark (Princeton University Press, 1996). There you will
find considerable evidence of how the Roman Empire became predominantly
monotheistic because of a monotheism that OUT-POPULATED polytheism. It did
so by growing at 40% per decade, compounded over several hundred years. The
extra babies and extra proselytizing of the Christians accounts for this
growth. A monotheistic god allowed the faith to coherently command these
retransmission behaviors in the service of just the one god-meme. (It would
be nice if Stark had also been able to analyze the differential propagation
of monotheism in pre-Christian Semites.)

The principle of parsimony is subordinate to consistency with the data:
given 2 theories that both explain the same data, you choose the more
parsimonious one without regard to whether its features, elements, or
dimensions are "new" or "old." In this case, the data strongly support the
thesis of a recursive re-transmission advantage for monotheisms over
polytheisms. (Present-day Islam is another good example). The memetic
theory is also profoundly parsimonious if you already agree that religious
inculcation happens and can happen at different rates for different
faiths--no fundamentally new phenomena proposed.

The "Queen of Science," namely mathematics, also overrules any impulse to
avoid "new" (overlooked?) elements, dimensions, or features in the theory.
If monotheism grows by 1.41-fold per decade, (+/-), then it WILL BE
1,000,000 (+/-) times more prevalent after 40 decades. And you MUST
attribute the society's change somehow to those growth figures--there is no
escaping it. The only matter left to debate if the numbers are well
established is the question of WHY the growth differential. Your post seems
like it might want to address this, but then it also seems to suggest a
population of individuals simultaneously drifting toward monotheism as if
all brains were linked by instantaneous communication.

>>From Alex
>Date: 6th August 1997
>The current thread about 'explanatory coherence' has drawn out the
>polytheism/monotheism issue. If we put these two things together within
>an evolutionary context, we have a somewhat different version of how
>monotheism could arise.
>But first: one of the main aspects of explanatory coherence - the
>elegance of the theory - requires that if possible we do not add new
>features, elements or dimensions to the theories we already have in
>order to explain particular experiences. Parsimony or economy of
>explanation is the key rule. The ideal being that we generate a coherent
>explanation out of a judicious re-combination of the theories and data
>we already have. Along these lines: Monotheism would NOT be a construct
>'invented', inserted into and in competition with co-existing
>polytheistic religions. It only looks that way if we do not take
>developmental time (evolution) into account. If we reject the idea that
>it is some way ADDED to an existing set of beliefs, we can pose the
>question: how can we generate monotheism out of polytheism? How can we
>get one out of the other? How can we turn a 'many' into a 'one'?
>Further, how can we systematically and economically map the reduction in
>number involved in the evolution of pantheism to polytheism to
>In pantheism, the gods or spirits are very numerous because they are
>integral to the many natural elements of the environment: trees, water,
>sky, etc. In polytheism, there are a fewer number of gods which 'stand
>for' or include whole areas of life, not (numerous) individual elements.
>In monotheism, there is one god who stands for and represents ALL
>aspects of life. It is possible to imagine that what is involved here is
>an evolutionary process of 1) articulation: where key characteristics
>are identified. 2) fusion: where similar characteristics of the previous
>set of gods are merged.
>Thus IN TIME, that is, in historical and social terms one could equally
>imagine a group of societies in close geographical relationship to one
>another, each having its own single god (formed out of previous sets of
>gods). Their inescapable relationship and communication between each
>other, through commerce, cultural exchange and war would, one might
>surmise lead to a constant recognition of similarities between the
>characteristics of their respective gods. The end result might be WHAT
>SEEMED TO BE the formation of a new monotheistic religion. In fact, it
>is the compressed characteristics of several contiguous religions. No
>one in particular has to invent the new religion, it would have happened
>anyway for purely systemic/co-evolutionary reasons. The religions of the
>Middle East had numerous similarities of religious mythology before the
>advent of the Judeo-Christian religion which contains elements of those
>several orginal religions. The bottom line is the results of
>communication between groups within an environment from which they
>cannot escape.
>There is a point where the newly constituted meta-religion co-exists
>with the residue of the poytheistic religions, but (assuming a stable
>environment) this is a temporary situation. The meta-system will finally
>substitute for the unique characteristics of its constituent systems.
>>From many to one - produced by a process of communication and exchange.
>We do not need to invent a monotheism or parachute such a meme into a
>society, systemic processes - cultural evolution will do it for us -
>over time.
>(There is a very interesting and equally systematic explanation for the
>reversal of this convergence and the consequent fragmentation of
>religions. Depending on the prevailing cultural state: the process is
>Alex Brown


--Aaron Lynch

THOUGHT CONTAGION: How Belief Spreads Through Society The New Science of Memes Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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