Comparative Cultural Systems Project

The Comparative Cultural Systems Project (CCSP) sets to devise methods for the interpretation of religious and cultural traditions from a complex adaptive systems approach (CAS). The CCSP focuses on rare phases of restructuration in which cultures adapt to new environmental conditions. Such phase-transitions provide us with the opportunity to study markers of change and growth by highlighting the contrast between periods of stability (homeostasis) and periods of acute crisis and cultural morphogenesis. This methodology sets to underscore the role of different informational architectures as distinct strategies for the construction of culture.

Key Personnel: Yair Lior, Wesley J. Wildman, Justin E. Lane.

Introduction to the Comparative Cultural Systems Project

The Comparative Cultural Systems Project (CCSP) seeks to devise new methodologies for the study of complex adaptive cultural systems. A central objective of the CCSP is to equip systems theory with a more historically nuanced comparative framework. As opposed to the highly theoretical approaches that dominate the field, this project sets to demonstrate how the foundational principles of systems theory are expressed in a real-life historical context. Offering a detailed ‘thick description’ of the particular social, economic, political, and technological conditions of various cultures between the tenth and thirteenth centuries CE, our project provides systems theory with a more concrete foundation of historical, and textual data, that is then translated into computer modeling. The advantage of computer modeling is that it forces us to describe our insights in a rigorously defined logical framework. This offers clarity and precision. Additionally, it offers the ability for insights to be replicated and critiqued by others as they use, manipulate, and devise their own models.

A specific interest of the CCSP is situating the understanding and description of religious systems within a framework of information processing. Such an approach doesn’t only seek to enrich the field of systems and information theory but is also helpful in reorienting traditional approaches in the humanities. For example, the interpretation of the function of sacred canon, commentarial activities, and modes of cultural transmission using an informational lens, provides us with perspectives that are dramatically different than those offered by traditional historical and philological approaches. Moreover, interpreting traditions in terms of information dynamics enables us to detect universal mechanisms in the behavior or cultural systems across a diverse range of cultures with unrelated origins.

One of the central objectives of the CCSP is to highlight the instrumentality of comparative religion to the construction of a more comprehensive systems interpretation of culture. By enabling us to identify cross-cultural patterns that may otherwise seem arbitrary within a particular cultural environment, comparative religion functions as a powerful tool for corroborating universal cultural patterns as well as a way to point out important differences among various traditions. The interplay between similarities and differences offers ways to better understand the dialectic tensions between universal mechanisms and their unique expressions within a particular cultural context.

The project’s comparative methodology is predicated upon a distinction between two cultural modalities characterized by contrasting cognitive, social, and ideological temperaments. More importantly, these contrasting modalities, which we refer to as analytic and synthetic, represent dissimilar strategies of information processing and the construction of meaning. As we define it, the synthetic worldview is characterized by the affirmation of the body and this-worldly life, an emphasis on ritual and community, cultural particularism, and associative, non-analytical modes of thought. The contrasting analytic worldview stresses individualism, de-contextualization of data, other-worldliness, contemplative spirituality, and universalism. Although much has been written about differences between analytic and what researchers call ‘holistic’ (synthetic) traditions, the CCSP seeks to further refine these distinctions by providing a more exhaustive account of how they operate as distinct and mutually exclusive cultural systems.

The distinction between analytic and synthetic cultural modalities should not be understood simplistically. The CCSP highlights the extremely intricate interplay and co-existence of analytic and synthetic temperaments in any cultural system. However, although there is no such thing as purely analytic or synthetic cultures, certain biases lead to attractor states that orient traditions towards a self-enforcing dynamic of synthetic or analytic modes of operation. This raises profound questions regarding what makes a culture predominantly analytic or synthetic and how does one of these two cultural orientations become subordinated or prioritized over the other.

Finally, The CCSP is specifically focused on rare periods of cultural transition and restructuration. Such phases of morphogenesis provide us with a unique glimpse into the adaptive mechanisms of cultural systems, highlighting their dynamic nature, the symbiotic interrelationship of their constituent properties, their capacity for self-organization, and their ability to retain and preserve traditional ways of life in face of acute environmental perturbations.