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Against Egregore Absolutism
A guest article by HWFO reader Joseph B. Ottinger
HWFO paid subscribers gain access to a private Slack server to bounce blog related ideas off of each other. In one of our channels, #opensourcedreligion, we discuss emergent religious and pseudo-religious phenomena such as wokeness and egregores in the age of interconnected social media. Sometimes these discussions lead to ideas expressed in the HWFO newsletter. On August 18th, I posted an article by Levi McDowell entitled Surviving the Egregore Apotheosis, which discussed ways in which individuals could persist in a Neuralink driven future dystopia where current-thing-ism has absorbed most of mankind’s behavioral processing. Here, reader Joseph B. Ottinger offers a rebuttal.
A few days ago, Levi McDowell wrote an interesting piece, called “Surviving the Egregore Apotheosis,” in which he states that devices like Elon Musk’s Neuralink will fundamentally change the nature of humanity, migrating to a group identity as opposed to an individual identity. He offers possible ideas for identifying the group identities – the egregores themselves – and lays out means for individuals and societies to resist the influence of egregores.
I have no issues with the overall concept of the article, although it makes some assumptions that I think do not hold up well under inspection.
An egregore is not innately dangerous; it’s just a trend that dictates to those who follow it, and that’s a neutral and natural expression of community. Egregores aren’t bad, in and of themselves, but they can be, just like the people who make them up.
The biggest problem the article has is that it emphasizes the worth of the individual as compared to the worth of an egregore itself, which to me feels like a non sequitur.
An egregore, as described by McDowell, is a mass movement made of individuals. He describes “historical egregores” as being like demons that were summoned by the will of a group. A threatened community might “make a deal” with Ashmedai to save them against the Philistines, for example, and the concept of Ashmedai turns out to be a useful abstraction to unite the people to fight (“in Ashmedai’s name and with his power!”) against their assailants.
Such egregores from myth are useful ideas but few of them are considered to actually exist – however, I’d contend that most world religions are successful expressions of egregores.
An egregore is not a “trend.” For example, wearing bell bottoms in a given subcommunity is usually a trend, not a movement; one can choose to wear the bell bottoms without offending those who choose otherwise. The “bell bottom trend” probably makes no suggestions to those who follow it, contributes no feedback loops, offers no moral judgements.
That’s not to say that it cannot – but until it starts defining an outgroup (“those who do not wear bell bottoms”) and offers a feedback loop about the in-group and out-group (“those who wear the bell bottoms are good, those who do not are evil”), it’s not an egregore.
To be classified as an egregore, it has to offer feedback loops and participate in them.
Egregores in the modern sense rise and fall like empires in the blink of an eye, thanks to social media; some social media networks offer incredibly rapid feedback loops in the form of reads, likes, dislikes, commentary, shares, mutations, and memes based on the egregore, and all of these things can contribute to the development of the egregore in purpose and function.
It acts, as otherwise summarized, like a brain, with people comprising most of the neurons and synapse lattices.
This relates very heavily to Mr. McDowell’s thesis, and it’s a very useful abstraction, but it’s got a core flaw. Egregores might act like brains or as if they have agency in and of themselves, but Egregores are not brains. They do not have agency; they merely have effects as if they do.
In many ways, egregores are like waves on the shore in this lack of agency. There’s a better analogy, but let’s build to it by taking the farthest stance away from the original assertion, to build contrast.
A wave can do things. It acts as if its intent were to perform actions, although those actions are hopefully very slow. It has effects such as eroding a shoreline, or carrying creatures and matter back and forth, or dragging a human or three into eternity by virtue of rip tides, or even providing transport on its surface.
But even if a wave appears to have intent, that’s not the same as the wave having intent. The molecules of water that make up the wave have no input into the actions of the wave, and the wave does not influence the molecules. When they are part of the wave, they act in a way that is consistent with being in the wave, but when the wave dissolves or deconstructs they return to their original, mindless condition.
They do not affect the wave outside of their existence, and the wave does not change the molecules of water. It is unthinking, a creation of gravity and opportunity, even though we can suggest it had the intent of destroying a house on the beach, or supporting a surfer, or depositing a jellyfish on the shoreline.
A better analogy for an egregore in nature would be a flock. A flock is a collection of individual birds acting in concert despite retaining agency and individuality, acquiescing to the movement of the flock for the sake of efficiency on the part of the flock.
The survival and actions of an individual bird, in the context of the flock, is not relevant for the survival of the flock as a whole. When one discusses the negative effects of an “apotheosis of egregores,” I’m sure the conclusions are well-intended, but such concerns rely on the assumption that the survival of an individual is just as important as the survival of the flock, or possibly even more important.
“Surviving an egregore apotheosis” assumes that the individual, and their individuality, is far more important than it actually is. It’s fully understandable that the individual would want to survive as a unique, independent entity, but in a Darwinian sense, the needs of the many do indeed outweigh the needs of the few.
Most humans exist to propagate ourselves along two distinct axes: ideology and genetics. We are wired, biologically and psychologically, to continue our species and ideas. Our genes are “selfish,” we view our physical bodies as being corporeally valuable, and we similarly think that the ideas and values we hold are valuable, because we hold them. Thus, most of us want to propagate our genes, to some degree or another, and we want others to think as we do. These are two spectrums and humans will land somewhere on each of them.
One person might care only that their DNA survives. “I shall have many children to give myself meaning, and I do not care what they think or what values they hold.” This person lies at the extremes of the two axes - they only care about the genetics.
Another person might not wish to have children of their own at all, but only care that their ideology survives. “I must teach others to believe as I do, or my life lacks meaning.” This person is on the opposite extreme of our previous example - they only care about the ideology.
Most of us will be somewhere in the middle of these two made-up persons. We want some children of our own such that they look sort of like us, and we want them to think roughly as we do, valuing generally the same things we do, without expecting them to be clones.
Given this idea, the resistance toward an egregore makes sense, because the apotheosis being described is the subsumption of the individual to the flock. The flock dictates, the individual obeys, and the individual has very little influence over the flock except through unpredictable circumstance and timing. Instead, the individual participates in a feedback loop where the flock provides most of the input.
When the flock - or the egregore - dictates the majority of the thought, individual agency is lost. If the egregore veers towards disaster, the individuals who comprise the egregore lose the agency to avoid the disaster, depending on how deeply embedded in the egregore they have become.
But egregores generally don’t fly towards disaster, because that’s how they lose efficiency as survival mechanisms, and if there’s anything mankind has learned over its entire history, it's that the society survives, most of the time, even as the individuals do not.
Do not fear egregores. Just choose the right ones.