THERE – Theory and Empiricism of Religious Evolution: Foundation of a Research Program

5.1. Communication-Theoretical Foundation of Systems Theory and the Theory of Evolution

5.1. General Communication-Theoretical Considerations

“What happens in the heads of the uncountable individuals can never build up ‘religion’—except through communication” (Luhmann 1998, 137). Imagination, experiences, and actions of individual persons become only religion through utterance that generates follow-on operations of communication, through socially ensured ascription of something as part of the domain that is determined by the code transcendence/immanence. The terminologically reflexive, metonymically condensed, ascription is religion—including family resemblances of this term and respective attributes (Kleine 2010). Religion is a genuinely communicative matter. Equally, as language itself is not the sum of some phrases of people, religion does not evolve and perform in intersubjective communication, negotiation, or agreement. (1) It is rather socially generated and adopted by psyches through socialization and learning. The addressing of the organic and physical environment as religiously meaningful is also a matter of communication. A religious event, a religious theme, a religious object, a religious time, a religious space, a religious action, and a religious experience do not exist as such, but only in the respectively communicative determination (Taves 2009). Religion unfolds within the communicatively evolved and communicated distinctions between inside and outside (as the founding structuring of the semantic space), between the before and after (time) as well as between ego and age (society) (Luhmann 1995c, 74–82).

From the communication-theoretical perspective, the epistemology of religion (as genitivus subiectivus and obiectivus) needs to be newly designed. First, it is not about the communication from human to human, but about communication, which, in the self-description, largely originates from transcendent beings and powers and addresses these, which, however, need to be communicated and depicted with immanent means. Second, religious communication itself comes to the fore instead of communication between actors (according to the sender-receiver model). Religious communication includes persons but addresses them in various ways (Kippenberg, Kuiper, and Sanders 1990). Therefore, persons, including their experiences, intentions and motifs, are not the starting point, but one among many forms of attribution of religious communication. “Not motifs explain societal differentiation, but societal differentiation explains motifs. Particularly in the case of religiously qualified motifs, nothing else applies” (Luhmann 1989, 344).

Based on the boom of action-theoretically directed approaches within the social sciences, it has become especially common to emphasize on the analyses of actors as well as their interests, motivations, and intentions within the fields of philology and cultural studies in general as well as within the study of religion in paricular. The question is, though, who and what counts as an actor, and under which circumstances is which event socially attributed to whom or what. From the perspective of the approach represented here, which primarily conceptualizes communications as events, which are out for communicative follow-on operations, it is not self-evident that the social attribution of the actor’s status is exclusively implemented on individual persons or collectives of persons. Michel Serres, Bruno Latour, and others justifiably draw attention to the fact that concepts and objects can be ‘quasi-subjects’ in communication. Therefore, on the contrary, individual and collective actors can be ‘quasi-objects’ in the sense of Michel Serres (1982b) und Bruno Latour (1993). (2)

In order to understand religion scientifically and to not only paraphrase it, advancing underneath the surface of the subject-object differentiation is due and to put the focus on the communication processes themselves. (3) A specific communication event constitutes an autonomous entity and generates a scope with the possibility to communicatively address events or parts of them as actions of actants. Actants are thus not the starting point for events, but a communicative product. The metalinguistic concept of agency refers to it. To understand communication as an autonomous agency means that it does not work out in the mere aggregation of individual expressions related to each other by individual actors. “If reproduced autopoietically though recursions, communications form an emergent reality sui genesis. Human beings cannot communicate; only communication can communicate. Like communication systems, consciousness systems (and brains, cells, and so on, on their other side) are operationally closed systems that can maintain no contact with one another. There is no nonsocially mediated communication from consciousness to consciousness and there is no communication between the individual and society” (Luhmann 2012, 57–58). This view is not only but especially relevant for the study of religion, because something very often happens in religious communication which, in the self-description, is not or at least not primarily and exclusively attributed to human actors. In the religious domain, one finds superhuman spiritual forces and beings (Tylor 1871, 5; Spiro 1966), including ghosts, demons, goddesses and gods or one single god, who are considered to act. If these were pure projections from consciousness (Feuerbach, Marx), one could not understand how the vigorous imaginations of different consciousnesses could get together. The metaphor of negotiation, taken from economics, or the metaphor of agreement, taken from law, contradict religious self-description and do not suffice to explain its scientific reconstruction. How should issues be negotiated or agreed upon that refer to the unconditional and ultimate? (4)

The perspective taken here does not exclude the consideration of human actors as forms of attribution but does not reduce the processes to them. Assuming an organic-mental-social unity called ‘human being’, the focus of communication in its autonomy gets lost while evolutionarily formed boundaries between mental, organic, and social processes are blurred. Moreover, the focus on processes of the negotiation of interests of individual actors reproduces all too often only object-linguistical semantics outside the religious and therefore prevents the possibility of analyzing religion. The “atomistic paradigm of sociality”, according to which sociality is conceptualized as the mere aggregation of single actions of single actors in contrast to a “relational approach” (Simmel 1989, esp. 130), enjoys great popularity within the study of religion, but contains above all epistemic aporia. This is because what is semantically and sociostructurally addressed as ‘human’, varies immensely contextually, historically, and in different cultural settings—not least in the history of religions (Kippenberg, Kuiper, and Sanders 1990; Assmann and Stroumsa 1999). (5) It is therefore questionable what is meant by ‘human actors’, and consequently, they cannot be made the starting point of scientific analysis. (6) Moreover, an “atomistic paradigm of sociality” leaves no space for the agency of religion; from this perspective, religion can only be structured as the mere imagination of actors (and from there it is not far to arrive at ideologically-critical ‘exposure’ of religion) or as an anthropological constant (7) (then, all people, who do not understand themselves as religious, must be missing a constitutive mode of human existence). Possibly, it is not a matter of the study of religion, but rather of the ‘study of humans’. (8) When in scientific description attribution is primarily or even exclusively directed to ‘human actors’, differentiation processes and relations cannot be focused on; neither those between socio-cultural reality and externalized nature nor those between social subsystems with different system rationalities. What is addressed as a human being is always an amalgamation consisting of numerous and various systemic processes—of physical, chemical, organic, and psychoic processes within the social environment. (9) From a sociological perspective, persons are entities of attribution of societal subsystems and social forms (Luhmann 1995a). Humans belong to the environment of society; if addressed with a focus on other-reference, they are each a bundle of role differentiations—or in the words of Georg Simmel (2009): “the intersection of social circles”—and become thematic only under certain aspects.

These considerations have important consequences for the scientific description of religion. The inner logic of the religious is not congruent with the interests of political power, with class-related status (such as age, sex, economic situation, ethnic and cultural belonging, etc.), economic profit, technical coping with everyday life matters, and so on. It does not even produce intersections with the issues mentioned above—unless the respective features become parts of religious communication and are transformed into religious meaning. Furthermore, it is not always clear within religion who or what is subject and object of the happening. (10) In order to understand religious communication, the subject-object scheme must be left behind and the operating mode of semiosis taken into consideration, which is dealt with in the next chapter.

5.2. Semiotic In-Formation of Communication Theory

As set out in the initial theses in the second chapter of this paper, communication is a selection process consisting of the parts utterance, information, and understanding. This triadic process can be modeled using semiotics. (11) Communication is based on the activation of sign processes, and semiosis provides the elementary syntax of communication. “We learn from semiotics that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organized” (Chandler 2007, 11). According to Peirce’s theory of categories, semiosis always consists of firstness (abstract quality), secondness (relations), and thirdness (mediating representation):

  • The category of firstness encompasses everything concerning what it is and how it is, because it is so without regard to anything other than itself. Firstness refers to what is present in its quality within the spectrum of rules and varying application, possibility, and reality. “Firstness in its purest form, as a complement to secondness and thirdness, is reflexive, symmetrical, nontransitive, and self-contained. As such, the most that can be said of it is that it is as it is(Merrell 1997, 167). An example of firstness is the quality of blueness.

  • The category of secondness includes everything that is and how it is, because of its connection with one or more second others. “Secondness requires the existence of some other accompanied by dyadic relations of action-reaction, cause-effect, sequence-consequence, and statement-counterstatement: it entails ‘What Is ↔ Is Not’, according to classical logical principles. [...] Secondary marks the initiation of transitivity, asymmetry, non-reflexivity, and disequilibrium, and it at least gives a glimpse of the generation of time” (Merrell 1997, 167). Secondness refers to what has been established and connected, to what is factual within the spectrum of identity and difference. An example of secondness is: The blue color of the car has the values ​​100, 149, 237 on the RGB scale.

  • The category of thirdness covers everything that is and how it is, because it establishes the link between secondness and thirdness. Thirdness refers to a mediating being within the spectrum of facticity and contingency. “Thirdness, taking its cue from Secondness, is characterized by full-blown transitivity, radical asymmetry, temporality […]. Entailing the incessant push toward generality, or regularity, Thirdness embodies the effort—however futile—to bring processes to completion, to arrive once and for all at the plenitude of things” (Merrell 1997, 167). An example of thirdness is: Peter agreed with Mary’s statement that the blue of the sky is at its most beautiful in Tuscany.

Three different sign aspects correspond to the three categories:

  • The representamen (R) (or sign vehicle; Morris 1938, 3) corresponds to firstness.

  • The object (O) (or designatum, Morris 1938, 3) corresponds to secondness.

  • The interpretant (I) corresponds to thirdness.

It should be noted, however, that “the terms interpretant, sign, and object are a triad whose definitions are circular. Each of the three is defined in terms of the other two” (Savan 1988, 43). Therefore, Peirce regards semiosis as “an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs” (Peirce 1994, CP 5.484). Moreover, he emphasizes the permanent referential character of signs: The meaning of a sign “is, in its primary acceptation, the translation of a sign into another system of signs” (Peirce 1994, CP 4.127; see also CP 4.132). The three categories of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, and the corresponding sign aspects, always indicate to each other in semiosis and never have an independent existence. The triadic structure of the sign can be derived from this: “a sign stands for an object in some respect to some interpretant” (Parmentier 1994, 16). The Peircian sign model is, therefore, to be interpreted as a “relation of relations” (Bense 1975, 67; Burch 1997). (12) However, relations can only exist if differences are laid out in advance. That is why the Peircean sign model is also to be interpreted as a difference of differences—according to Gregory Bateson's understanding of information as “a difference which makes a difference” (1987, 276.321 et pass.). According to Elisabeth Walther (1979, 113–116), the following relations are to be distinguished (Figure 5):

  • signification relation: representamen R ⇒ sign object O

  • meaning relation: sign object O ⇒ interpretant I

  • pragmatic or applicative relation: interpretant I ⇒ representamen R

Figure 5: The three relations in Peirce’s sign model

The interpretant is a constitutive sign component; it mediates the relationship between the sign and the sign object. The interpretant, however, is not a human actor (which is also a sign) or just an act of consciousness. “The interpretant [...] is not only an ‘interpretive consciousness which is a sign’ but generally the interpretation, the interpretive field, the realm of the meaning of ​​the sign. The interpretant itself is a sign (which is part of the thinking process) or an experience or a sensation, in other words, it encompasses all that is meant by ‘meaning’ in its widest sense” (Walther 1969, 6). (13)

Charles Morris (1938) introduced the three dimensions of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics into semiotics. “Pragmatic meaning is defined as meaning that is dependent on context, while the semantic value of a sign is the meaning, or notional core, that it has apart from contextual factors” (Mertz 1985, 4), and syntax encodes the meaning. (14) The syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic dimensions are all based on each other in semiosis (Figure 6). The pragmatic dimension controls “the manner in which signs ‘do’ things” (Yelle 2011, 357), whilst semantics refer to the indexical aspect of signs, and syntactics is responsible for the structure of sign correlations.

Figure 6: The mutual foundation of syntactics,
semantics, and pragmatics

Figure 6 shows syntactics in the place of the representamen, because it controls the coding of semiosis. Semantics is located at the position of the sign object, because it is responsible for the interplay between self-referential sense (system) and other-referential reference (environment). (15) Pragmatics is to be put in the place of the interpretant because it is responsible for the mediation between syntactics and semantics. The mutual dependence of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics is the precondition for the representational character of the sign (16), but at the same time, it leads to the interplay between semiotic conventionalization and innovation, and thereby to fuzzy semantics (Rieger 2000) (17). This in turn requires, but also allows for, further connections, thereby rendering an open future possible. Religion is based on the interaction between syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics, too. Semantics becomes specifically religious only if it is based on a religious syntax in the sense of a specific religious code. Conversely, the religious syntax is realized in semantics that is determined in religious terms. The reciprocal condition is founded by religious pragmatics, i. e. by relating to a usage context defined in religious terms.

If we apply Peirce’s semiotics to the newer systems theory and to second-order cybernetics as outlined in the chapter on the basics of systems theory (see Figure 1), then the three sign components: representamen, sign object, and interpretant, must be duplicated for an elementary semiotic system to emerge (Figure 7).

Figure 7: The semiotic elementary system

The semiotic elementary system identifies itself (i. e. distinguishes itself from its environment) in the following way: A representamen (R2) (firstness), a sign object (O2) (secondness), and an interpretant (I2) (thirdness), acting as a processor, constitute a sign form which incorporates and observes a sign content including a representamen (R1), a sign object (O1) and an interpretant (I1) (as the first processor).

The communicative activation of semiosis occurs through the incorporation of the triadic structured semiosis in the social space. The social space supplements the three semiotic dimensions of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics, by a fourth, i. e. the social dimension, which is, however, itself semiotic and therefore triadic in nature. (18) It comprises social forms ranging from, e. g., schools, lineages, movements, networks, and associations to formal organizations (for the present, see Krech, Schlamelcher, and Hero 2013; Heiser and Ludwig 2014). Modeled on the ideal type ‘organization’, a social form is based on its communication structure, the persons involved in the shape of ascription (formalized: personnel) and its program (ritual and other instructions, patterns of interpretation, dogmas, statutes, etc.) (Luhmann 2000, 9–10) (Figure 8). (19)

Figure 8: Correlation between semantic space and social space

The communication structure, which is placed at the semiotic position of the representamen, forms communication in systemic terms. The relationship between the communication system, the mental as well as—via the respective psychic systems—the organic and physical environment, is controlled by the concept “personnel” (or less formal: those persons, who are addressed in a communication process). The personell is located at the semiotic position of the sign object, because here the structural coupling between system and its environment takes place. The program is located at the semiotic position of the interpretant, because it mediates the relationship between communication structure and personnel. In a Roman Catholic service, for example, the liturgy, as part of the church organization, functions as a communication structure. The priests, the ministers, the reader, and the church attendants are the involved personnel, and the Missale Romanum is the program. The social space, in turn, is embedded in the societal space, which is divided up into subsystems such as politics, law, science, economics, health/social services, education, art, and religion. The example of a Roman Catholic service is embedded within the Roman Catholic church as a religious organization, which, in turn, is nested within religion as a societal subsystem.

5.3. Religion as a Semiotic System

Against the backdrop of the considerations on semiotics, the question of what constitutes a complete religious sign as the elementary unit of religion is to be dealt with. The general semiotic code must be specified so that religion can distinguish itself (and be distinguished) from other forms of semiosis and fulfill its societal function of ultimately coping with undetermined contingency. In its differentiated form, religion is based on the code transcendent/immanent in order to proceed systemically, to distinguish itself from other social subsystems, and to fulfill its social function of ultimately coping with undetermined contingency. In accordance with the assumption that the religious code in nuce comprises all that is necessary for religious communication (as is the case with the genetic code for organic development), the binary distinction together with its mediating unity must be found in the religious code. Taking the distincions between self-reference and other-reference as well as between transcendence and immanence, including their unity, into consideration, the complete religious sign can be modeled as follows:

Figure 9: Composition of the complete religious sign

Any specific semiosis “needs to start from exceeding a representamen” (Leone 2014, S50). A religious sign system therefore begins with the representamen of a previous sign form (R1). As the sign system is in the process of being formed, the representamen R1 has the value of immanence. However, it only becomes an immanent sign element through the closure in the direction of self-referential transcendence with the value of I1; designating something as immanent only makes sense in connection with transcendence. The self-referential closure based on the code transcendent/immanent is the first system-constitutive distinction. If, as a result, the sign system is determined to be religious, the paradigmatic opening to the second system level must also be based on the religious code. It occurs, however, in the direction of the value of other-referential transcendence. This is the first step of the emergence of religious information as a metaphorical translation of the metonymic transcription. This is where the forming religious sign system takes the path to the other-referential unity of transcendence and immanence. The sign object O1 has this value, because on the one hand, it is the result of the metonymic inclusion of transcendence, but on the other hand, it opens other-referentially towards the immanence. This paradigmatic reopening towards the position of the other-referential immanence completes the second step of the emergence of religious information as the translation of the transcription—that is, the difference of a difference. Eventually, the other-referential immanence at the semiotic position of O2 is transferred to the self-referential unity of transcendence and immanence at the position of R2.

As soon as the religious sign system is closed, the closure process can retrospectively be outlined as follows: The representamen of the observing sign form (R2) is the point of transformation between the distinction of system and environment (Scheibmayr 2004, 283). In the case of a religious sign, it ensures the self-referential unity of transcendence and immanence. The representamen R2 signifies the sign object O2, in the place of which the other-referential immanence is to be located. The interpretant of the sign form (I2) mediates between the representamen R2 and the sign object O2. As it is a religious sign, it is the other-referential transcendence that can be found in the place of the interpretant I2, because I2 is pragmatic and context-sensitive. The representamen R1 and the interpretant I1 of the observed religious sign content together process the self-referential code transcendent/immanent. Located at the position of the sign object of the observed sign content (O1) is the other-referential unity of the distinction between transcendence and immanence. This unity is objectified, because it is observed by the sign form. It is other-referential, because it always refers to a dynamic object in the environment to which the semiotic system, via the immediate sign object, can only ever approach. (20) If individual signs are components of a self-referential organization as a “semantic closure” (Pattee 2012), they are determined in a complete religious sign as religious. In this model—as with the model of the general complete sign—it must be taken into account that the sign components are in a state of permanent oscillation, and their semantification can therefore also change their values. It is only on this basis that semiosis can remain flexible and enable follow-on operations. In addition, the two components of the religious code, in principle, refer to one another. Transcendence exists only as the reflection value of immanence, and immanence, in turn, can only come about in connection with transcendence. The model presented in Figure 9, therefore, represents only a snapshot of an oscillating process.

An example may help to show how a specific religious sign comes about. An observer (that might be any semiotic entity, e. g., a text, or a sequence in an oral conversation, where a person communicates a respective information) observes the following:

  • HERE is a CHURCH. (Contexture 1) (21)

  • A PERSON enters the CHURCH. (Contexture 2)

  • The PERSON speaks a PRAYER. (Contexture 3)

According to the semiotic model outlined above, the three contextures have the following position:

Figure 10: CHURCH as a religiös sign

The indication HERE is, aside from the fact that THERE is not indicated, initially indeterminate. It only indicates presence and can refer to anything. A first clarification is made by the reference to A CHURCH. But A CHURCH is still not determined semantically and pragmatically either. It could, for example, refer to a sign on a map or to a statement made during a guided tour for tourists. With the statement “A PERSON enters the CHURCH” the case starts to be closed. The CHURCH’‘is now determined as a building that PEOPLE can walk into. However, its closer determination remains undefined. If the PERSON is, for example, an ART HISTORIAN who would like to carry out restoration work on frescoes in the CHURCH, the CHURCH becomes a PLACE TO PRACTICE ART-HISTORY. It is only the subsequent and final contexture “The PERSON speaks a PRAYER” that determines the CHURCH as a SACRED SPACE. At the same time, CHURCH’ is determined as a triadic sign in this case: as a concept of SACRED SPACE (thirdness), as a PHYSICAL BUILDING (secondness) and as a notion of ​​a church with certain QUALITATIVE CHARACTERISTICS (firstness).

Figure 11: The oscillation between closure and opening
using the example of the relation between a CHURCH and a PERSON

The example illustrates the oscillation between the syntactic closing and opening as well as between immanence and transcendence actualized in religious semantics (Figure 11). The sign component HERE is semantically open in its own right, it can activate anything. The syntagmatic closure begins with the relation to the sign element A CHURCH’. But it is not yet determined either. The following relation between the two interpretants, A CHURCH’, and A PERSON’, is a paradigmatic opening, because A CHURCH’, though determined by HERE, can be connected to many things. (22) Opening means that A PERSON’ is also semiotically open; it can behave in many ways and does not necessarily have to be related to A CHURCH’. The syntagmatic closure of the relation that follows makes THE CHURCH’‘semantically unambiguous, because it determines it as a BUILDING ONE CAN ENTER. The subsequent paradigmatic opening points at the sign THE PERSON’’, which can, once again, BEHAVE in various ways. The final syntagmatic closure folds in the other sign components and makes the final sign complete. A PRAYER as the representamen of the observing sign form determines the entire sign system in religious terms.

The semiotic syntax is linked to the semantification of the religious code in the following way: HERE has the value of self-referential immanence, which is related to the religious code via A CHURCH. The sign of A CHURCH occupies the value of self-referential transcendence and thereby gains potentially religious significance. The sign A PERSON has the value of other-referential transcendence, which bears a relation of other-referential closure to the value of the other-referential unity of transcendence and immanence. This is the value of the sign THE CHURCH’‘. This sign merges transcendence with immanence insofar as THE CHURCH’‘is, on the one hand, enclosed by transcendence and, on the other, it is immanent in other-referential terms, as it refers to a PHYSICAL BUILDING. The path of the emerging religious sign system then leads to the sign THE PERSON’‘via the second paradigmatic opening. As a reference to the PSYCHE or the MENTAL BEHAVIOR of THE PERSON’‘, this sign occupies the position of other-referential immanence and is transferred to the self-referential unity of transcendence and immanence via a system-referential closure process. The sign A PRAYER, which takes this position, folds in and completes all elements of the sign system and defines them in religious terms. Accordingly, A CHURCH’ in the sign object function on the left sign triad is defined as a SACRED BUILDING with an other-reference to the physical environment, in the interpretant function of the observed sign content it is determined as a SACRED SPACE in the sense of a religious space concept, and in the representamen function of the right triad it is defined as the quality of a SACRED SPACE—in this example as a quality that invites PERSONS to engage in religious behavior in the form of PRAYER.

Readers may surmise that all this is only ‘plain’ or ‘dull’ theory or even mere speculation. What is the relationship between empirical analysis and a theoretic model, between religion and its scientific description? The following chapter is devoted to this question.

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