This serial post will be about dissociation as transcendence & why both are apparently ubiquitous & simultaneously extremely psychosocially diverse. I will make several functionalist claims, as follow:
- Consciousness is costly
- Dissociation is a basic function of consciousness
- Dissociation defrays the costs of awareness
- Transcendence is just another word for dissociation
- Transcendence appears in diverse psychocultural forms not because of its primacy but because it is a baseline necessity
Transcendent experiences are those beyond the limits of ordinary experience (Beauregard 2011). There are varieties of transcendent experiences moderated by personal, social, & cultural circumstances. Personal circumstances can be psychological & biological &, of course, are not mutually exclusive of social & cultural influences but are directly influenced by & interact with them. Therefore, we can study transcendence from a number of perspectives. For instance, I study speaking in tongues & other religious behavior, fire-induced trance or transcendence influenced by “flickering light & sudden sound,” & self-deception or transcendence of self-awareness as an adaptation or unconscious mating strategy.
These studies are based on a cognitive science of religion model. This approach holds that cognitive mechanisms related to religio-spiritual behavior are either adaptations for religious behavior or exaptations evolved to deal with general problems but uniquely invoked for religious purposes. I tend toward the latter school of thought & follow cognitive anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse (2004) in imagining that religions develop, in a non-linear way, following the modes of religiosity: “catchy” concepts –> repetitive rituals –> convoluted doctrine.
Transcendent experiences tend to be rather catchy & get repetitively repeated. Doctrine is much harder to grapple with, so many people never get past the 2nd mode (some never get past the first, as I lay out in “The Wrong Holy Ghost”). Transcendence and thus “consciousness” are ecologically relative, which is a super-important point. “Consciousness” I define as a combination of self- and other-awareness, but the dimensions of self & the others one is aware of are also relative. This is why, even within religion, which is too often referred to monolithically as Religion with a capital “R,” diversity is critical to ecological flexibility & stability.
Just as natural environments consist of many ecological niches that require different strategies of survival and reproduction, so too should different social environments foster different cultural and religious system. In other words, we postulate that environments of stability, security, and wealth will cause a different form of religiosity to thrive–that is, liberal religion. (Storm & Wilson 2009)
This, therefore, is the perspective we take in the Religious Ecology Study, which examines group-level commitment behavior and success, based on a model proposed by biologist David Sloan Wilson in Darwin’s Cathedral (2010). The main criterion for inclusion in the study is that a group fulfill anthropologist Barbara King‘s (2007) model of spiritual inclusion, which means that they inculcate a sense of “belongingness” among members. I have conducted such research among several Pentecostal church groups in New York, Tuscaloosa, and Costa Rica; and students in an Honors course I teach and in my research group have conducted research among video game communities (ABXY) and extremely liberal churches (e.g., Unitarian Universalist) and observed groups that defy traditional categorization (Temple of Divine Reality).Thus far, the common thread among cooperatively successful groups is some transcendence of self in supporting the group. And, ironically, among groups less successful in sustaining cooperation, we observed other forms of systemic psychological transcendence that did not rely on group participation (e.g., the video gamer club).
The working hypothesis of this model, therefore, is that transcendence functionally limits consciousness. This can be demonstrated psychologically, phenomenologically, and neurologically. Evolved functional limitations of consciousness are exapted and superstimulated as part of ritual religious structures and behaviors.