In the concluding sections of Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Rappaport asserts the nature of humanity to be one of survival enabling meaning making in an intrinsically meaningless world subject to physical law (Rappaport 1999, p. 451). While acknowledging the positive impact science had on ridding us from superstition and magic, Rappaport sees a threat to sanctified, adaptive understandings becoming invalidated by a purely empirical understanding of the world.

“Misconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Rappaport 1999, p. 452)

Rappaport continues to elaborate on this point before advocating a union between “post-modern science and natural religion” (Rappaport 1999, pp. 456-61) which he suggests to be founded in ecological concerns in order to construct an adaptive system of meaning that can persist in the face of modern scientific insights. He opts for ecology as foundation for this new system of meaning despite reiterating oneness as the highest form of meaning throughout his book (Rappaport 1999, pp. 71,380-1,91-95). It is the purpose of this essay to argue three main points. Firstly, that a system of meaning based on the notion of oneness is more adaptive than one based solely on ecological concerns, secondly, that such a system is a priori consistent as well as supported by advances in our understanding of evolutionary dynamics, and thirdly, that it can be shown a posteriori that systems of meaning have evolved over the course of human history not unlike the progress in natural sciences to form ever closer approximations of oneness as the highest form of meaning in line with the first two points.

Oneness and evolutionary theory

“It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and in increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (Darwin 2009, p. 110)

This insight Darwin published in 1871 should later be generalized in the theory of multilevel selection (Wynne-Edwards 1986), the idea that individuals reap evolutionary benefits by cooperating which provides the basis on which initially separate adaptive units evolve into ever more close knit groups until an evolutionary transition occurs resulting in groups of adaptive units on the initial level forming a new singular adaptive unit constituting a new organism on a higher level (Wilson, Vugt & O’Gorman 2008). Among the examples cited by Smith & Szathmáry are the transition from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, from protists to multicellular organisms as well as from primate groups to human societies with language and culture as enabling factors (Smith & Szathmáry 1997). Although the theory of multilevel selection is possible yet highly unlikely on the level of the gene (Williams 1996, pp. 92-124), “[a]ll that is needed to make group selection possible is a device that leads individuals to separate their conceptions of well-being or advantage from biological survival. Notions such as God, Heaven, Hell, heroism, honor, shame, fatherland and democracy encoded in procedures of enculturation that represent them as factual, natural, public, or sacred (and, therefore, compelling) have dominated every culture for which we possess ethnographic or historical knowledge.” (Rappaport 1999, p. 10) Understanding multilevel selection theory, we can expect the mechanisms of cultural evolution to favor spiritual understandings of the world, which more closely approximate the idea of oneness and instill them into the cultural group. Following this logic, one can expect to discern ever more closely approximated versions of the idea of oneness as the highest form of meanings that are ever more highly sanctified in spiritual traditions over evolutionary timeframes. This is what Rappaport is referring to in his writings when claiming oneness to be the highest form of meaning.

Spiritual versus scientific progress

The natural sciences as opposed to spirituality are thought of as a process of continually ascending progress. The differences in perspectives and resulting breakdown of communication between ‘the two cultures’ of the sciences on the one and the humanities on the other have been blamed as a significant obstacle in solving the world’s problems (Snow 1993). It is the objective of this section to demonstrate that the scientific and the humanistic outlook, particularly the spiritual one, need not be fundamentally separated and are in fact similar. This point will be explained by examining the scientific genius of Newton in the natural sciences before defining spirituality and drawing an analogy to science.

Isaac Newton was a prolific English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher. What is less widely known is his equal interest in the subjects of alchemy (Figala 2002) and attempting to calculate the end times from bible references (Mamiani 2002). Why then, is Newton still revered today despite him being a ‘superstitious alchemist’ and having been proved wrong by Einstein in the early 20th century? The reason is two fold: firstly it is understood that Newton despite being wrong, just as Einstein still being wrong due to the irreconcilable nature or general relativity and quantum dynamics, he was relatively less wrong than Kepler before him and Gallilei before him and Copernicus before him (Hawking 2003). Secondly it is understood in regards to what he was less wrong, namely in his scientific understanding of gravity. More generally we can thus understand science as following:

“Science is the conscious quest for the realization of an ever closer approximation of that which is true and unchanging about the universe we exist in, in order to enhance the means that enable the reshaping of material reality in line with our goals and values.”

The value of science thereby lies in the degree of accuracy to which it describes reality insofar as the gained insights enhance our means of reshaping reality by the creation of ever more sophisticated technology that happens to produce desired effects within the margin of error of the currently best available scientific theory. With Newton that meant the ability to calculate the trajectory of cannon balls with Einstein GPS, LEDs and nuclear bombs came into the reach of mankind. This very particular aspect of scientific truth has been reinforced as a fundamental value since the enlightenment and came to ever greater prominence over the course of the engineering driven industrial revolution followed by the information age with its computers and their extreme literalism and has since become that which closest resembles a transcendent standard of value in our postmodern society and its incredulity towards meta narratives. ‘If it is not scientifically true it has no worth’. The question of how ultimate goals and fundamental values are determined that can then be advanced with science and technology remains unanswered sofar.

In line with the writings of Rappaport it is assumed for the purpose of this paper that the highest good is constituted by humanity maximizing its chances of remaining in the existential game (Slobodkin & Rapoport 1974). From this perspective consider the following definition of spirituality:

“Spirituality is the (sub)concious quest for the realization of an ever closer approximation about that which is true and unchanging about our existence in the universe in order to enhance the means that enable the reshaping of our consciousness in line with the laws of nature imposing the conditions for our existence.”

Empirical support for the idea of oneness as the highest form of meaning

Understanding spirituality in this light we are effectively enabled to judge spiritual systems in terms of their adaptive merit. The reason being that spiritual systems that promote the adoption of a non-dual world view are more in line with the conditions of our existence and hence more adaptive than spiritual systems that incorporate notions of oneness to a lesser extend. How else could one categorize the nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury the Norse warriors known as Berserkers fought in as less spiritual then the feeling of absolute unitary being (AUB) experienced during vipassana meditation? The answer lies in the insight that some states of consciousness are more conducive to the fitness of a group than others. As argued above in the context of multilevel selection theory, what one does to others becomes equivalent to what one does to oneself, ergo feeling for the other, as one with the other becomes an objective adaptive truth, when realized resulting in the breakdown of the illusion of separateness or becoming ‘enlightened’, attaining Satori, or simply wanting to be compassionate in spiritual terms.

While such notions are present to a greater and lesser degree in all spiritual traditions, it is Advaita Vedanta – the non-dualist philosophy referring to the identity of the Self (Atman) with the Whole (Brahman) that most explicitly encompasses the notion of oneness in its teachings. Accepting multilevel selection on the cultural level as a true and valid theory, we can clearly identify on who’s spiritual giant’s shoulders (analogous to those in the natural sciences) we stand today: the countless shamans of prehistory, the sages of the axial age, the prophets of the major spiritual traditions advocating compassion (Armstrong 2007):

Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Buddhism: ”Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

Confucianism: ”Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Hinduism: ”One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self.”

Islam: ”Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”

Judaism: ”The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.”

Taoism: ”Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”

All major world religions contain this basic key insight and this is not a coincidence. Just as the bats and the dolphins evolved sonar independently (Li et al. 2010) precisely because of the evolutionary advantage better perceiving individuals had over less well perceiving ones in both species so did compassion impart an evolutionary advantage in those groups who’s cultural content happened to have evolved this approximation of oneness as the highest form of meaning:

“Let us think about the results of following different ethical teachings in the evolving universe. […] No one can act against the laws of nature. Thus, ethical teachings which contradict the plan of evolution […] will be erased from the memory of the world. […] Thus, only those [ethical] teachings which promote realization of the plan of evolution have a chance of success. Such is the immanent characteristic of development: what corresponds to its plan is eternalized in the structures which follow in time while what contradicts the plan is overcome and perishes.” (Turchin 1977, p. 334)

In regards to whether evolution has a plan or not, one simply needs to semantically replace Turchin’s ‘plan’ with ‘adaptive’ in the evolutionary sense and his quote remains valid in the context of this essay. The fact that not everyone does in fact align themselves consciously with the goal of remaining in the existential game is absolutely irrelevant since only those that do, encoded in sanctified spiritual beliefs and justified on whatever basis, will have a higher chance not to “be erased from the memory of the world”, be it in a Malthusian “struggle for existence” or under any other set of selection pressures.

Several quotes in support of this perspective:

“The ultimate spiritual revelation is that there is no other. There is only One.” (his italics) (Cohen 2007)

Put straight and to the point: we are all one.

“Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.” (Rand 1964, p. 25)

Rand was basing her philosophy largely on the ideas of Nietzsche who misguidedly, as we now realize, advocated egoism as a means of affirming life (Nietzsche 2008, p. 173). In the basic premise expressed in this quote however, Rand is in line with the argument developed in this essay.

“Necessary existence is a positive property” — Kurt Goedel in 1941, Axiom 5 of his ontological proof for the existence of god using modal logic (Sobel 2004, p. 125) .

“Therefore, since the supreme Good is the supreme Being, it follows that everything good has being and every being is good. So since nothing and non-being do not have being, they are not good. And so nothing and non-being are not from him from whom only good and being come.” (Anselm & Williams 2007, p. 170)

A bit more esoteric, but expressing the same basic principle: being (or existence) is better than nonbeing (or nonexistence)

“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23

This bible quote is in line with Turchin’s perspective cited earlier yet expresses it in an archaic, biblical language.

“Ego is the biggest enemy of humans.” — Rig Veda

Failing to realize the illusion of separateness is an existential risk.

“Because the will according to Schopenhauer, is essentially unitary, the executioner comes to understand that he is one with his victim.” (Deleuze 2006, p. 7)

A good approximation of the idea that what is done to others is literally done to oneself, Schopenhauer however was misguidedly advocating this perspective as a form of an active denial of the Will to life, although such an outlook would in fact affirm it as shown in this essay.

These examples could easily be multiplied.


“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein

It has been demonstrated that the abstract and commonly understood to be non-rational idea of ‘oneness as the highest form of meaning’, has its roots in evolutionary dynamics supported by scientific theory as well as empirical evidence. It was shown that the logic of spiritual evolution unfolds in a process that is the result of the fact that in the absence of any externally specified reward, self-replication emerges as an intrinsic reward and starts to feed on itself in line with the discussed evolutionary dynamics causing an evolutionary arms race between groups to generate ever closer approximations of oneness as the highest form of meaning. This process has its origins as a teleonomical, not a teleological process of chance change and non-chance retention of units of information in self-replicating information structures. Be they on the level of the gene encoded in DNA or that of culture encoded in ideas, concepts as well as sanctified spiritual belief systems. In the last sections of Rappaport’s book, he argued that once humanity realizes these dynamics it should actively seek alignment with them in order to ensure humanity’s continued existence thereby effectively turning this originally teleonomical process of chance into one of intentional design in line with scientific insights. It was shown in the arguments put forward in this essay that his advocating an ecological foundation for such a system of meaning would be suboptimal and that instead a system of meaning based on his own understanding of the highest form of meaning, namely ‘oneness’ or ‘non-duality’, being the optimal approach. Doing so holds the promise of reaping the rewards of science in the form of technology married with a system of meaning in line with the enlightenment ideals of reason and emancipation from superstition and dogma while at the same time minimizing humanity’s chances of extinction.


Anselm, S & Williams, T 2007, Basic writings, Hackett Pub. Co., Indianapolis.

Armstrong, K 2007, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Anchor Books, New York.

Cohen, A 2007, ‘How a New World Is Born’, What is Enlightenment, no. 36.

Darwin, C 2009, The Descent of Man, Lightning Source Inc, La Vergne.

Deleuze, G 2006, Nietzsche and philosophy, Continuum, London.

Figala, K 2002, ‘Newton’s alchemy’, in IB Cohen & GE Smith (eds), The Cambridge companion to Newton, Cambridge University Press, pp. 370-86, Cambridge.

Hawking, S 2003, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, Running Press, Philadelphia.

Li, Y, Liu, Z, Shi, P & Zhang, J 2010, ‘The hearing gene Prestin unites echolocating bats and whales’, Current biology : CB, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. R55-R6.

Mamiani, M 2002, ‘Newton on prophecy and the Apocalypse’, in IB Cohen & GE Smith (eds), The Cambridge companion to Newton, Cambridge University Press, pp. 387-408, Cambridge.

Nietzsche, FW 2008, Beyond Good and Evil, BiblioBazaar.

Rand, A 1964, The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Book, New York.

Rappaport, RA 1999, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Slobodkin, L & Rapoport, A 1974, ‘An optimal strategy of evolution’, Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 49, pp. 181-200.

Smith, JM & Szathmáry, E 1997, The major transitions in evolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Snow, CP 1993, The two cultures, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Sobel, JH 2004, Logic and theism: arguments for and against beliefs in God, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Turchin, VF 1977, The phenomenon of science, Columbia University Press, New York.

Williams, GC 1996, Adaptation and natural selection: a critique of some current evolutionary thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Wilson, DS, Vugt, MV & O’Gorman, R 2008, ‘Multilevel Selection Theory and Major Evolutionary Transitions: Implications for Psychological Science’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 6-9.

Wynne-Edwards, VC 1986, Evolution through group selection, Blackwell Scientific, Oxford.

7 comments on “The Logic of Spiritual Evolution

  1. I have been a longtime reader of overcomingbias/lesswrong and the discussions revolving around the singularity/AI memeplex in general, and I always had my misgivings that even though Eliezer et al were smart, thoughtful, and generally on solid ground with respect to their epistemology, something just did not sit right. I came across Valentin Turchin’s work, which led me to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which led me to read Hegel, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, and Schelling. I later read some work from Ken Wilber and his Integral philosophy which got me interested in reading about the mystical traditions of both the east and the west (Plotinus etc.). I must admit, Turchin was the gateway drug for me to take the rest of these thinkers seriously, his cybernetic perspective on evolution and his theory of metasystem transitions sparked an epiphany in me and ever since then my worldview has expanded beyond the limited horizon of the type of thinking typical of the singularity crowd.

    Stumbling across your blog is a breath of fresh air in the singularity echo chamber filled with very smart but fatally flawed perspectives on evolution, morality, and intelligence. Before reading some of your articles, I had already started to shift my views of meta-ethics to embrace the inevitability of convergent multi-level evolution, where game theory predicts the rise of reciprocal altruism and the shaping of compassionate agents. I am convinced that this is the right way forward in thinking about morality and the future of intelligence, and that the ideology dominating the singularity scene, at least with respect to SIAI/lesswrong/OB, is a dead end. I can’t blame them completely, however, they are just operating within the modern scientific paradigm that mostly discounts notions of directionality in evolution, even if they are teleonomic and not teleological explanations.

    In my opinion, I think the problem lies in the absence of a more complete theory of evolution taking into account what we’ve learned from complexity science. Coming from a theoretical computer science background, I have been researching complex systems and evolutionary theory using the tools of computational complexity theory, and I feel that I’m on the right track in placing these ideas on more rigorous grounds. What I aim to show is that convergence plays a much stronger role in evolution than is given credit for, and that certain phenotypes are inevitably produced by the computational constraints of the environment. Anyway, just wanted to voice my pleasant surprise and enthusiasm for your writings and hope to read, and discuss, more of these ideas from you.

  2. Pleasure to meet you! Turchin was my gateway as well interestingly enough. Ben Goertzel is a big fan of Turchin himself in case you did not know that.

    The SIAI/lesswrong/OB crowd is indeed a dead end and I have written extensively about that and as a result am now a persona non grata in those circles. Which is fine.

    Your words of encouragement are very welcome and I hope to hear from you more going forward. A couple of my essays and other writings that you may find interesting:

    Can critique be grounded? Kant vs. Nietzsche

    AI utility functions and friendliness hermeneutics

    The truth wont set you free, but meaning has a fighting chance

    Jame5 – A Tale of Good and Evil

    Do email me (Stefan.Pernar(theobvious)gmail{dot}com). Mate, it would be great to discuss these matters with a like minded soul for once.

  3. Yes, I’m aware that Goertzel worked with Turchin and holds to similar ideas, and that he has voiced his dissension with SIAI where he used to be a director I believe. I started reading the cosmist manifesto, haven’t finished it due to so many other things I need to attend to, but from what I gathered I like the spirit of the writing, but I just am wary of ever more high-minded transhumanist philosophy and rhetoric even if I am sympathetic to it. IEET is more of the same, I think their writing is a nice way for younger people who are unaware of such things to broaden their minds, a sort of non-fiction scifi, and growing the boundaries of people’s minds and getting them to think is great, but again, I don’t think they are doing anything remarkable.

    I really think that problem will not be solved with philosophy, but with science, though, ironically, I formed my scientific hypotheses mostly from reading german idealism and thinkers influenced by them. The problem is with our current understanding of evolution and complexity, the incomplete picture we have frozen in time more or less since the modern synthesis has influenced and left its indelible mark on all other intellectual thought in the 20th and 21st centuries, from ethics to natural science to economics, political science, and to philosophy and the humanities. What is supposed to be the leading edge of human thought, the scientists and scholars of our day, are all beholden to a consensus worldview based on an incomplete paradigm of how natural history, and how the universe, has evolved. I’m not saying everything is wrong, on the contrary, the incomplete worldview is so compelling because it is the most complete we’ve ever had, but the missing pieces of the puzzle are important enough to create a paradigm shift in our worldview, away from the flatland of our current intellectual landscape. I am definitely not the first, nor the only one who has these ideas, complexity science has gotten a lot of attention since the 60s and has penetrated popular culture with ideas of emergence, fractals, chaos theory, and the butterfly effect, but they have been applied to specific and disparate phenomena. Stephen Wolfram’s NKS, though harshly criticized for its unoriginality (much of it is reworked ideas from the past 25 years without due credit), and his careless treatment of fields outside of his expertise, especially evolution, is nevertheless staring directly in the eye of what I think is a revolutionary scientific framework. I hope to work on these ideas as part of my thesis as I pursue a masters in applied mathematics and theoretical computer science, and I do hope to get involved with the Santa Fe Institute where I think these ideas could find a home among likeminded thinkers.

    I’ve bored you enough, if you want to hear more, email me anytime.

  4. Pingback: Rational Morality » The future of human evolution revisited 2.0

  5. Pingback: Rational Morality » The Bible read with Evolutionary Eyes

  6. Pingback: Rational Morality » Evolutionary, Deconstructing, Constructive

  7. Pingback: Rational Morality » AI Utility Functions and Friendliness Hermeneutics

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