Emergence, Sin and Downward Causation

I just recently ordered Matthew Croasmun's new book The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans

I'm interested in the book as Croasmun uses emergence theory and downward causation to understand how Paul describes Sin as a "power" at work in the world. To catch everyone up, Paul talks about both sin and Sin. "Little s" sin is the classic "missing the mark," our moral mistakes and failures. But Paul also describes "Capital S" Sin, a power acting upon humans as an independent force and agent.

Emergence theory comes from the physical sciences and describes how complex, higher-order properties "emerge" from simpler, lower-order dynamics. More than that, once these higher-order properties "emerge," they can exert what is called "downward causation," directing and constraining the lower order dynamics.  

That explanation is a bit abstract, but the reason I was interested in Croasmun's book is because I used emergence theory and downward causation to explain Sin, the Devil and the Powers in Reviving Old Scratch. Here's how I describe emergence and downward causation in the chapter "The Wizard of Oz," using an ant colony and meteorology:

Think of an ant colony. No single ant has the blueprint of the ant colony in its head. No one ant is running the show, directing the ants to forage, build, or defend the colony—all these things happen with no one running the show or calling the shots. What we observe from on high, looking down at the ant colony as a whole, is order and pattern, an order and pattern that, once established, has causal effects upon the individual ants, directing and organizing their behaviors. A pattern emerges from the parts and then exerts a downward force upon those parts. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

But this causal force can’t be located in or reduced to any of the parts being affected. If you could ask the ants, “Who’s in charge here?” they’d be stumped. No single ant is the Wizard of Oz running the show behind a curtain. Instead, the Wizard is everywhere, an unseen force at work in every microscopic interaction between the ants, organizing and directing their behavior. And the Wizard of Oz is much older than the ants. As the lives of ants begin and end, the pattern organizing them persists, outliving the individual ants.

The ants die. But the Wizard lives on.

Or think of a cloud. A cloud is a structure that emerges from a collection of individual water molecules. Clouds can’t be reduced to those water molecules, but clouds, once they exist, start bossing around those water molecules, throwing them around in thunderstorms and hurricanes. 

The idea is that, once the large scale structures emerge, those large scale structures--colony or hurricane--start to push around the lower order structures--the ants and molecules--that gave rise to the higher order structure. Emergence, then downward causation.

The idea, then, is that Sin is more than an individual's moral failure, Sin can be an emergent structure--historical, cultural, and sociological "weather" if you will--that pushes and pulls individual human behavior in dark and destructive ways. Not that we aren't free. Just that no person exists as an island. We are born into these emergent structures, and they continue to persist long after we are gone. We die, but the Wizard lives on. A dark invisible force, everywhere at work.

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