The Conceptual and Mechanical Structure of Egregores
How do we work with spiritual concepts while maintaining contemporary and secular sensibilities?
One of the questions I receive most frequently around my synesthesia-based sociocultural framework is “What even is an egregore, anyway?” There are several definitions floating around out there which don’t seem to provide much clarity. Some people use it as an updated synonym for what our ancestors might have called “spirits” or “demigods.” Others use it as an abstraction for the workings of a human collective, the way an individual can have an experience of the individual will becoming subsumed by something greater, like a crowd or a religion.
I’ve also seen it used to refer specifically to the concept of an idea itself taking on a life of its own, even given a personality and will by those who “summon” it, as in the mystical concept of a tulpa. A more technology-based concept might be to compare it to the idea of a monad, as used in functional programming, within a computational universe.
For me, it’s a way of invoking any or all of these things at once. But in order to understand the way I use the concept, you don’t need to have a full understanding of every aspect of what an egregore can be. I mostly use it as an abstraction for understanding the complexity of entities which have both volition and relationships to other entities.
My synesthesia also applies it to things that we typically think of as lifeless and inert, but the experience I have of a strange form of “empathy” for such things is far outside the scope of the current article.
What matters most here is how an input structure and an output structure—the sensory perception and the capability for action, made up of of any combination of subsystems—are able to combine to create a structure of values that affect the behavior of an abstract entity.
At heart, my concept of an egregore is any entity that is a component of greater abstractive systems, has its own system of functioning, and is composed of lesser abstractive systems.
The Mathematical Foundations of Complexity
It’s not a coincidence that the term “complex numbers” is used when i, the square root of -1, comes into play in mathematics.
I still remember the way my father explained complex numbers to me, shortly after I dropped out of middle school: “There’s positive and negative, and then there’s weird positive and weird negative,” he told me. It kind of felt like a fractal made out of the very concepts of positive and negative.
There were real numbers, which were based on the idea of material quantities. Then there were imaginary numbers, which were based on the root of -1 and felt kind of like getting a glimpse into another plane of existence. When real numbers and imaginary numbers combined, they made complex numbers, which secretly described every number imaginable, because either side of the combination could potentially be 0.
Complexity means something distinct from how complicated a structure is. Looking at complex numbers as a conceptual model suggests that an abstract entity can be made up of different parts that don’t necessarily correspond to each other directly or add together cleanly. Parts which appear to add to the structure might take away from it instead, depending on what operations are performed.
This introduces chaos, or the inability to directly predict output just by looking at input. Context and relationships between the parts of a system also matter.
It can be similar to our sense of smell and taste. The sour flavors of citrus fruit can be used to make something seem more salty than it actually is for the sake of a low-sodium diet, but they can also be used to make alcoholic drinks taste less of the bitterness of alcohol.
So how do these concepts end up applying to things which have behavior, like people?
Synergy, Sabotage, and Co-Evolution
We humans are obligate social creatures—we can even die if we don’t get enough contact with others at an early enough age. Like many creatures, we participate in an ecosystem made up of all kinds of different relationships, both symbiotic and adversarial. Let’s look at our relationships with a few different creatures as a way of illustrating the main components of an egregore: the one, the many, and one of three relational structures within the system. These relational structures can work in combination, but for now, we’ll just look at their simplest forms.
We’ve co-evolved for a very direct collaboration with dogs. These days, we’ll even romanticize the relationship between a child and a dog as one of the most pure and loving connections a person can experience—right up there with having a loving mother in infancy or building a lifelong romantic connection. I certainly remember some of my lonelier days as a kid, when I lamented that nobody but my dogs seemed to understand me.
In the relationship between a human and a dog, we tend to serve as the head of the egregore while our dog serves as the heart of the egregore. We tend to be in charge of the actions of the group, and we provide a structure and a purpose for our dog to work under, even if these days that’s as likely to be something as simple as keeping us company as it is to require the use of the hunting, herding, and guarding instincts that still live on in various breeds. Humans who develop a strong enough bond with a dog will often prioritize their canine companion over just about anything else. The depth of that bond pushes the instinctive buttons we have inside us related to the idea of “being part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Meanwhile, some of our historically greatest enemies in co-evolution have been the mouse and the rat. I’m personally among those who has enjoyed a beautiful relationship with a fairly large number of pet rats, and I’ve been astonished at the way one of my friends has even made a hobby of taming wild ones! But most times and places, this relationship has been especially adversarial. They steal our food, they compromise our buildings, they spread disease, and we try to prevent them from doing any of these things. Fortunes have been made and broken via attempts to build a better mousetrap, and it’s hard to deny that both we and the rodents have grown more clever from our mutual arms race. To be part of an adversarial egregore keeps its constituent parts sharp—this is part of the reason so many humans enjoy taking part in competitive games: as a motivator towards continuous self-improvement.
Of course, we also have to consider the cat, a creature that possesses a deep specialization for hunting the rodents with whom we have such an adversarial relationship. They’re smaller than us, and can get a tasty and filling meal rather than just avoiding harm the way we do by catching rodents. Our collaboration with them has never been quite as direct or as hierarchical as with dogs, regardless of cat people’s jokes about serving their cats. Though they tend to be in a more companionate role now, it used to be a practical necessity to keep cats in order to keep rodents and snakes away from livestock and food. We’d offer them food and shelter from the elements in exchange for their hunting skills, and might even develop a friendlier relationship with them in the process.
Any of these relational styles can apply to the relationship between humans and other humans, other creatures, or even technological entities. Some of the most powerful and pernicious egregores that we tend to encounter on a daily basis are the ones I typically name Number-Go-Up and Divide-And-Conquer, which are in a collaborative relationship with each other, but are collectively in something closer to a combination of an adversarial and convenient relationship with their own constituent parts.
So how do these entities override our individual agency?
The Madness of the Outgroup
Have you ever had the experience of getting swept up in the crowd? Even if you haven’t, I would venture that you’re at least familiar with the concept. This doesn’t only happen in crowds, of course. Sometimes it seems like humans have two primary modes of operation: that of being an individual agent and that of being an agent of…something else. Something bigger than the individual, with its own interests and motivations. It might be a religion, a shared personal identity, or even just a group of kids who have decided that one of their peers is “uncool.”
Much like us as individuals, the groups that we participate in have their own motivations, their own behaviors, and their own defense mechanisms. And the meeting of two egregores, like the meeting of two minds, creates a third, distinct entity, one which might be collaborative, adversarial, or convenient. One of the common experiences of contemporary public discourse is that of people seeing each other as generic agents of the Dreaded Outgroup rather than as an individual. It can manifest in a few predictable ways, which tend to have roughly the following shape:
Person A, who is part of Group A, posts or comments something online.
Person B, who is part of Group B—which on the whole is not very friendly with Group A—responds to Person A.
Each person is using language that, within their own ingroup, signals that they are interacting with each other as sovereign individuals. However, one or both of them have used a signal that tells the other person that they are outgroup to each other.
One or both people may or may not make earnest attempts to use their own ingroup’s call-and-response to enter “individual mode” rather than “egregore mode.” However, when these scripts are invoked with the adversarial outgroup, they often serve the exact opposite function! Each person who does this tends to have the experience of attempting to treat the other person with respect, yet being met with adversarial or bad-faith conduct.
One or both people labels the other as outgroup, often invoking a stereotype about how members of that group are somehow inferior in their logic, despite the real problem being that they are talking past each other.
The interaction reinforces both the group affiliation of the individuals and the boundaries between the two groups.
This dynamic can be mitigated by in-person interaction, though other forms of prejudice apply in that context. As I mentioned above, the structure we use to relate is itself part of the relevant egregores, which manifest differently via different means of communication.
The Meta-Perspective as the Universal Outgroup
I’ve had many conversations with people in my closest circles lamenting the way that our interest in nuance gets us labeled as the Dreaded Outgroup by both sides of a given conflict. In fact, to tie this back in with The Political Mythology of Women’s Rights, I recently invoked the idea of the pro-abortion faction building direct support structures for women seeking abortions in the exact way many of my San Francisco circles claimed they were going to do around various causes if Trump were elected.
I suggested that it would be more productive towards that faction’s ends to build systems of support going beyond “I’ll host you and pay for your travel/abortion” than to see things as an all-or-nothing, federal-level struggle—for example, providing support in permanently relocating politically aligned women, hosting them while they established new residency, and offering various kinds of financial support and employment assistance. It seemed directly in line with what I’d seen suggested time and time again around when the 2016 election was going on.
One fellow completely ignored any of the words I was saying or the kinds of support systems that I was suggesting, declaring that because this suggestion had included the notion of supporting pregnant women, that I was “transparently” suggesting that they “[bring] it to full term in most circumstances”… I still don’t quite understand how he got from “relocate women who want abortions to your pro-abortion jurisdiction and help them become productive residents of that area” to accusing me of insisting that they bring their pregnancies to term.
But that’s the power of the ingroup-outgroup divide, I suppose. Divide-And-Conquer, as a distinct entity from its constituents, has its own motivations and its own defense mechanisms, foremost among them the notion of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” It experiences the most vague potential for an individual to separate from its motivational and behavioral structure as painfully unacceptable, and so in such a contentious environment, even a single word can invoke deeply emotionally evocative purity-testing mechanisms.
Few individuals have the patience to figure out how to overcome these defenses—but the good news is that the problem has already been solved, and all we have to do is adapt the principles involved to contemporary discourse.
In the next article, we’ll explore the Divide-And-Conquer and Number-Go-Up egregores, their origins, and the social structures that have always been and will continue to be their Kryptonite.
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