Commentary Traditions and the Evolution of Premodern Religious and Philosophical Systems: A Cross-Cultural Model

Steve Farmer, John B. Henderson, and Peter Robinson

Steve  Farmer, Ph.D., Portola Valley, California; [email protected].
John B. Henderson, Ph.D., East Asian Studies, Department of History, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803; [email protected].
Peter Robinson, Recom Technologies, NASA-Ames Research Center; [email protected].

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        Parallels in the rise and fall of religious and philosophical traditions are highlighted when those traditions are studied cross-culturally. In literate old-world societies, those parallels included near simultaneities in the first emergence of abstract theology and philosophy in the mid-first millennium BCE and striking similarities in the patterns of growth and decline in cosmological traditions from late-classical to early-modern times. This paper introduces a general model to explain these parallels, integrating cross-cultural data with abstract representations of nonlinear dissipative systems. One novel feature of our model is its ability to be implemented in a series of simple but powerful computer simulations. In brief, we argue that parallels in the growth of premodern religious and philosophical systems were byproducts of cultural invariances in commentary traditions. The most important of these invariances involved the methods used by premodern commentators to reconcile highly stratified textual canons. In our model, biologically innate modes of analogical thought, embodied in the earliest canonical texts, are transformed by the repeated application to later traditions of a small set of exegetical techniques. The iterative application of the same techniques in successive layers of tradition, combined with a variety of dissipative forces involved in textual transmission, resulted in the growth of religious and philosophical systems exhibiting emergent self-similar properties. Classical examples show up in the complex mirroring systems of so-called Neo-Confucian and Neo-Platonic traditions and in closely related Daoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian scholastic thought. (For a graphic example, see Fractal Cosmologies.) The fact that similar emergent structures can be identified in the literate remains of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican traditions suggests the universal applicability of our model. Rates and reliability of textual information flows serve as tuning parameters in our model; changes in such variables are used in the model to simulate the impact of changing technological and historical conditions on the growth of correlative religious and philosophical systems. We argue that the rapid development of abstract thought that occurred in the Mediterranean, India, and China in the mid-first millennium BCE was linked to expanded use in that period of lightweight writing materials (supplemented, in the case of India, by the development of elaborate oral mnemonics that emerged in part in reaction to that growth). We argue that the rapid decline of high-correlative systems in later stages of the Eastern and Western printing revolutions can be modeled using the theory of self-organized criticality (SOC), which envisions the collapse of self-similar systems as they approach maximal levels of complexity and systematic integrity. We conclude by discussing protocols for our computer simulations and by outlining our model’s teaching and research applications.

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