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Multiple Axialities: A Computational Model of the Axial Age

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
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  • 1 University of Agder and NORCE Center for Modeling Social Systems
  • | 2 Boston University and the Center for Mind and Culture
  • | 3 Oxford University and NORCE Center for Modeling Social Systems
  • | 4 Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center
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Abstract

Debates over the causes and consequences of the “Axial Age” – and its relevance for understanding and explaining “modernity” – continue to rage within and across a wide variety of academic disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, archaeology, history, social theory, and cognitive science. We present a computational model that synthesizes three leading theories about the emergence of axial civilizations. Although these theories are often treated as competitors (especially by their proponents), our computational model shows how their most important conceptual insights and empirically based causal claims can be integrated within a single computational architecture. The plausibility of the latter is supported by the results of our simulation experiments, which were able to simulate the emergence and growth of an axial civilization. The model shows how the relevant theories can be rendered consistent, while challenging the claims of any one to comprehensiveness.

Abstract

Debates over the causes and consequences of the “Axial Age” – and its relevance for understanding and explaining “modernity” – continue to rage within and across a wide variety of academic disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, archaeology, history, social theory, and cognitive science. We present a computational model that synthesizes three leading theories about the emergence of axial civilizations. Although these theories are often treated as competitors (especially by their proponents), our computational model shows how their most important conceptual insights and empirically based causal claims can be integrated within a single computational architecture. The plausibility of the latter is supported by the results of our simulation experiments, which were able to simulate the emergence and growth of an axial civilization. The model shows how the relevant theories can be rendered consistent, while challenging the claims of any one to comprehensiveness.

1 Multiple Modernities and Multiple Axialities

Karl Jaspers’ The Origin and Goal of History was published in German shortly after the end of the second World War. His historical overview of the origin of the “axis of history [which] is to be found in the period around 500 BC, in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 BC” took up less than a tenth of the book. Jaspers devoted most of his energy to emphasizing the universal goal of human history. At the beginning of the book, he announces that “Man, as we know him today, came into being” during this “most deepcut dividing line in history” (Jaspers 1953, 1). By the end of the book, however, it has become clear that “what really matters” is not “historical knowledge,” but our “ultimate knowledge” of the supra-historical, our “consciousness of Being” or the appearance of the eternal in time (1953, 276).

It is not difficult to understand Jaspers’ motivation. Like many scholars in the middle of the last century he was searching for a way to resist the fanaticism and violence that are all too often associated with exclusivist claims to absolute truth. Jaspers believed that such claims, which have led to division and devastation, especially in the modern West, “can be vanquished by the very fact that God has manifested himself historically in several fashions and has opened up many ways toward Himself. It is as though the deity were issuing a warning, through the language of universal history, against the claim to exclusiveness in the possession of truth” (1953, 20).

Today, however, most social scientists are wary of meta-narratives about “universal history” and tend to resist both anthropological analyses based on theological assumptions as well as political proposals based on divine revelation. Moreover, the genealogy of the concept of an “Axial Age” (Hegel, Weber, Simmel) as well as its religious and hegemonic use in modern, western discourse have come under severe criticism (Joas 2012; Assmann 2012; Boy and Torpey 2013). Nevertheless, academic interest in the link between the societal transformations that led to the emergence of axial and modern civilizational forms has grown rapidly in recent years (Thomassen 2010; Smith and Vaidyanathan 2010; Bowman 2015; Boy 2015; Dalferth 2012; Abrutyn 2014; Casanova 2012).

The phrase multiple modernities was introduced by Shmuel Eisenstadt, perhaps the leading figure in the revival of interest in – and revisioning of – Jasper’s thesis about the axial age (Eisenstadt 1999; 2001; 2002). His goal was explicitly to counter what he construed as the totalizing approaches associated with the catch-phrases “the end of history” (Fukuyama) and “the clash of civilizations” (Huntington). Eisenstadt believed that more careful attention to the complexities of the axial age could shed light on the complexities of the modern age. For example, he argued that the tensions among a range of “transcendent visions,” inherent to the axial civilizations, later became “most fully articulated” in the “Great Revolutions” of modernity, such as the transformations wrought by the French and American revolutions (Eisenstadt 2005b, 73). In his own writings about the axial age, to which we will return below, Eisenstadt did occasionally use the phrase “multiple axialities” (e.g, 2005a, 561), but he never spelled out the idea in any detail.

We have adopted this phrase in the title of our paper (and computational model) for two reasons. First, we want to draw attention to the multiplicity of concepts swirling within and around controversies over the axial “age.” While most scholars acknowledge that a significantly new form of human civilization emerged during this period, there are substantial disagreements over which variables play the most important role in the transition as well as the concept of “axiality” itself. Second, we also want to draw attention to the multiplicity of theories that compete as explanations of this major social transformation. Our model synthesizes the most empirically validated causal claims of three major types of theory and integrates their most relevant conceptual variables within a single computational architecture: a complex adaptive system involving multiple axialities.

Elsewhere we have developed computational models of the Neolithic transition from hunter-gatherers to domesticating-agriculturalists (Shults and Wildman, 2018), and of the slow rise of non-supernaturalist worldviews during the modern age (Wildman et al., under review). Both of those models focus on the critical role of (and critical reflection on) “religion” in those major societal phase transitions. Variables related to religiosity are also important in the model described below. Faced with all this conceptual complexity within and across disciplinary boundaries, how might we begin searching for a more coherent and comprehensive explanation of the axial age?

2 Modeling the Emergence of Axial Civilizations

Computational modeling offers a new way of dealing with competing concepts and theories, as well as new insights into metatheoretical questions that are important to scholars from all of the relevant fields of inquiry. Our Multiple Axialities Model (MAxiM), whose construction and validation we describe below, takes advantage of developments in computational modeling and simulation techniques. Such approaches, which have been called the “third pillar” of science alongside theory and experimentation (Benioff and Lazowska 2005; Tolk 2015), are a mainstay of the physical and biological sciences and are increasingly being adopted and adapted within the social sciences more generally (e.g., Alvarez 2016; Barceló and Del Castillo 2016; Squazzoni 2012).

One of the advantages of computer modeling is that it forces us toward conceptual clarity. Every variable must be explicitly defined and operationalized. This process helps us discover when and where scholars are talking past each other, or utilizing concepts that are too broad (or too narrow) for the purpose at hand. Computer modeling also forces us to make explicit relevant interconnections among competing theories. Rather than merely narrating a possible interdisciplinary synthesis, our computational model has clear algorithms that determine every postulated theoretical integration, enabling more concrete arguments about the hypothesized causal interactions.

The concepts and theories most relevant for MAxiM concern the processes that led to the emergence of the first millennium BCE civilizations commonly referred to as “axial.” In what follows, we reconstruct and integrate three major types of theories that have attempted to trace the causal factors at work en route to the axial age:

  • The ideological-political pathway

  • The material-social pathway

  • The cognitive-coalitional pathway

The first pathway, which was initially mapped by Jaspers and emphasizes the role of reflective thought in orienting new political visions, is most often championed by scholars from disciplines such as sociology and history. Proponents of the material-social pathway insist that Jasper’s approach puts the ideological cart before the materialist horse. The real driver of cultural change, they claim, was energy capture, which in turn led to new forms of social organization. Defenders of the cognitive-coalitional pathway argue that shifts in the expression of evolved cognitive and coalitional biases were the key factors behind the beliefs and behaviors that emerged in the large-scale societies of the axial age.

A third advantage of the methodology behind MAxiM is that it opens up new ways to address metatheoretical questions, such as the seemingly interminable debates about the relative value of verstehen and erklären. For Jaspers, it was almost a matter of pride that the Axial Period could not be explained. He was aware of the many sociological conditions behind the phenomena that so impressed him, but he insisted that those conditions do not provide a sufficient explanation. “No one can adequately comprehend what occurred here and became the axis of world history! … (it) grows more mysterious the more closely we examine it.” The manifestation of similar axial forms in diverse geographical areas “is in the nature of a miracle, in so far as no really adequate explanation is possible within the limits of our present knowledge” (1953, 18).

Most supporters of the material-social and cognitive-coalitional pathways to the axial age favor approaches that rely on quantitative evidence from fields such as archaeology (path two) or cognitive science (path three). They are often more interested in explanation than understanding. Eisenstadt, like many scholars who have focused primarily on the first pathway, was more interested than Jaspers in finding explanations for the emergence of these new civilizational forms. Over 60 years after the publication of The Origin and Goal of History, however, he concluded that “the conditions under which such groups could arise have not yet been adequately addressed or systematically analyzed in the social sciences” (Eisenstadt 2011, 285, emphasis added).

The methodological approach behind the conceptual and theoretical integration represented in MAxiM enables us to take advantage of both the careful, hermeneutical work of scholars with expertise in ideographic interpretations of particular civilizations, and the precise, hypothetical-deductive work of scholars focused on nomological explanations. Our computational model really does intend to offer an explanation of the emergence of the axial age – to show how such complex civilizations emerge from basic interactions and causal processes. As we demonstrate below, MAxiM simulates the rise of axial civilizations in an artificial society. However, its explanatory power is only as good as its integration of the empirical literature concerning the onset of the axial age.

Each of the three hypothesized pathways outlined in MAxiM is our own reconstruction; no single scholar has articulated any one of them in precisely this way. The figures are graphic representations of theoretical frameworks broadly shared by groups of scholars within (and occasionally across) academic disciplines. As we will see, intellectual travelers who prefer one pathway may occasionally refer to points of interest on a road less traveled. Moreover, the paths sometimes intersect. In the next three sub-sections, we briefly explicate these hypothesized pathways to axiality. We will then show how they can be integrated within a single conceptual model, and implemented within a computational architecture. We argue that all of these pathways could in fact have led to axial civilizations, although not exactly in the way their respective supporters propose.

3 The Ideological-Political Pathway to Axial Civilization

The first theoretical pathway to axiality, which was initially popularized by Jaspers, is depicted in Figure 1. In later sections, and in the online supplemental materials, we more rigorously define the concepts in the boxes and articulate the algorithms behind the lines that connect them. At this stage the goal is simply to present the distinctive character and internal coherence of each pathway.

Figure 1
Figure 1

The ideological-political pathway

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

In The Origin and Goal of History, Jaspers focused mostly on the concepts we refer to here as axiological reflexivity and transmundane soteriology. Philosophical reflection on the conditions for the human experience of value (axia) led to a vision of the social field and the cosmos as oriented toward a salutary end by an ultimate or transmundane Reality.

Jaspers mentioned most of the other shaded constructs in Figure 1 as well, but in his view they played only a secondary role in the story of the Axial Period. “What is new about this age, in all three areas of the world, is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations” (1953, 2). What is new exactly? “In some way or other man becomes certain of transcendence.” What conditions this certainty? Jaspers proposes that “The Godhead is origin and goal, it is peace of mind. There is security” (1953, 219). There are still some scholars who continue to focus primarily on these factors (e.g., Armstrong 2007), but they tend to be religious apologists. Eisenstadt and most of those who (at least partially) followed in Jaspers’ footsteps have been far more attentive to the “principled intolerance” that arose during this period and the potentially destructive aspects of axial civilizations (1986, 12; 2011).

Most later followers of this trajectory have attended more carefully (than Jaspers did) to the role of other factors, such as the increasing differentiation within the cultures that eventually became “axialized.” As Eisenstadt put it, one “common denominator” of axial civilizations was “the opening up of a range of possible institutional formations” and their transformation “into relatively autonomous spheres of society, regulated according to autonomous criteria” (2011, 279). The crystallization of such civilizations was marked by a “pattern of decoupling of the various structural and cosmological dimensions of social order, and of development of noncongruent societies” (2005a, 537), and the “disembedment” of many aspects of human life, which led to “more complex social systems with ‘free’ resources that could be organized or mobilized in different directions” (2009, 114).

Eisenstadt also argued that the rise of competing intellectual and priestly elites was a crucial factor in the rise of axial civilizations. These “autonomous articulators” of “transcendental conceptions” actively pursued the instantiation or institutionalization of a new, this-worldly order based on their transmundane visions (Eisenstadt et al. 1986, 4–5). Competing groups of priestly and cultural elites were the “carriers” or “transmitters” of axiality; as such, they were “a distinct sociocultural mutation … that differed greatly from the ritual, magical, or sacral specialist in pre-Axial civilizations” (2011, 284–5). These carriers, who played a key role in the emergence of axiality in east, south, and west Asia, have been referred to as “righteous rebels” (Runciman 2012). Of course, it would not have been possible to have such “scholarly” carriers of axial visions without the invention of external mnemonic technologies facilitating efficient methods of communication (papyrus, parchment, books) that provide new ways of transmitting cultural memory (Bellah 2011, 269; Assmann 2012).

It is important to note that Eisenstadt and others do emphasize the two variables originally stressed by Jaspers. What distinguishes axial from pre-axial civilizations is the emergence of “a new type of reflexivity rooted in ‘theory,’ and of new criteria of justification and legitimation of the social and political order” (Eisenstadt 2011, 280). Other scholars have used different terms to describe this new mode of reflectivity, such as “second-order thinking” (Elkana 1986). There were significant differences among the regions in which axial civilizations emerged, including ancient Israel, Greece, China, India and Iran. However, each of these involved a “qualitative increase in reflexivity, historicality and agentiality” that led to a “reasoned distinction between political order and religious-cultural order,” a distinction whose possibility can never be “unthought” (Wittrock 2005, 78, emphasis added).

One key outcome of this reflectivity among priestly and intellectual elites that emerged during this era was “the perception of a sharp disjunction between the mundane and transmundane worlds” (Eisenstadt, 1986, 3). In other words, the central driver of the “revolutionary breakthroughs” of the axial civilizations was “the emergence and institutionalization of new basic ontological metaphysical conceptions of a chasm between transcendental and mundane orders” (Eisenstadt 2000, 4).

Among proponents of this path another common way to describe the distinctive outcome of axial transformation is the distinction between God and king. Robert Bellah, for example, argues that the “very hallmark of the axial transformation” is raising “the critical question of the relation between god and king” (Bellah 2005, 83). Unlike archaic civilizations, in which the place of god-kings (despots, pharaohs, emperors) in the cosmological order was rarely questioned, axial civilizations were characterized by groups of competing priestly-intellectual elites who strongly distinguished between a transcendent God (or ultimate Reality) and worldly “kings.” The latter came to be construed as “secular” rulers, who still might embody sacred attributes, but who were accountable, at least in principle, to a higher divine authority or transcendental law. This axial age distinction, argues Bellah, was “the entering wedge” that would make the modern idea of the separation between church and state thinkable (2011, 323).

Scholars who defend this route to axiality tend to be sociologists or historians, and their arguments typically revolve around the extent to which (or the order in which) the factors in the shaded boxes of Figure 1 contributed to the emergence of the axial age (for a review of other literature in support of this pathway, see Wittrock 2012). Our own hypotheses about the relationships among these variables, and their relation to key variables in other pathways, are clarified below (and in Appendix C of the online supplemental materials).

4 The Material-Social Pathway to Axial Civilization

For Jaspers, the origin and goal of history is “the One of transcendence … thus this deepest unity is elevated to an invisible religion, to the realm of spirits, the secret realm of the manifestation of Being in the concord of souls” (1953, 265). Proponents of the second pathway to axiality will have none of this idealism. They prefer materialist explanations of the development of more complex social forms, emphasizing factors such as energy capture, war-making capacity, information technology and city size. Insofar as they stress the “material conditions” that enable the rise of cultural and religious traditions (Lerro 2000, xvi), advocates of “world-systems” theory generally fall into this category. The authors of Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present, for example, refer to their preferred approach as “institutional materialism” and argue that sociocultural developments such as the axial age should be explained as adaptive responses “to demographic, ecological, and economic forces in which people devise institutional inventions to solve emergent problems and to overcome constraints” (Chase-Dunn 2014, 13).

Similarly, Baumard and colleagues argue that the changes that really matter in the history of religions are not doctrinal but motivational. The most important change in the axial age was a shift from reliance on short-term or “fast” strategies for acquiring material needs to long-term or “slow” strategies that require delayed gratification (Baumard and Chevallier 2015; Baumard, Hyafil, and Boyer 2015; Baumard and Boyer 2013; Baumard et al. 2014).

For some scholars who follow this general trajectory, social complexification is best explained by developments in warfare technologies and subsistence technologies. The latter are emphasized by Peoples and Marlowe, who identify “a causal direction through which social and ecological forces led to the evolution and spread of belief in High Gods” (Peoples and Marlowe 2012, 255). Peter Turchin emphasizes the former. “Warfare is the chief selective force for increased society size” (2010, 13). Larger societies have a better chance of successful defense (or predation) because they can mobilize greater resources to support bigger armies. “Something about the Axial Age must have brought a shift in the social environment, tilting the field to favor the message of the prophets and philosophers. But what? The answer lies to the north of the civilizations of the Ancient World – with the plains of Eurasia.” What lie there? New military technology (2015, 193). Turchin is not shy about proposing a grand unified theory for the (relative) decrease in violence in human history. All of the relevant forces in this decline “do indeed share a single cause. The key process … has been the increase in the scale of human cooperation,” which was driven by improved effectiveness in military and crime-supressing institutions (2015, 218).

The partially-shaded boxes and the dashed lines that connect them in Figure 2 depict the material-social pathway. Our reconstruction of this theoretical framework relies most heavily on the work of Ian Morris, who comes down “strongly on the materialist side” in the debate over the relative importance of material and cultural forces in shaping history (2013, 253). The most important change during – and the defining characteristic of – the axial age was a “shift from low-end toward high-end states” (2011, 229). Morris proposes that this shift was made possible by increases in energy capture, mediated through increases in war-making capacity, information technology, and social organization. Axial thought – or what proponents of the third pathway described below call “theoretic culture” (the non-shaded box on the far-right side of Figure 2) – was not the secret ingredient driving social change. Its influence only came later, when the great states learned to “tame it, making it work for them” (2011, 262).

Figure 2
Figure 2

The material-social pathway

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

For Morris, the ideological peculiarities that emerged in the middle of the first millennium BCE were consequences, not causes: “axial thought was just one of the things that happened when people created high-end states, and disenchanted the world” (Morris 2011, 263). Morris suggests that the same argument applies to modernity; while there may be significant cultural or geographical differences among contemporary nation-states, “there is just one path to modernity” and that involves “an explosion in energy capture, provided by an industrial revolution tapping into the power of fossil fuels, followed by the application of energy to new walks of life” (258).

This suggests that the real motor behind the changes in the axial age “was the same as it had been since the end of the last Ice Age. Lazy, greedy, and frightened people found easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things, in the process building stronger states, trading farther afield, and settling in greater cities” (263). Morris makes even stronger claims in Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, where he argues that “energy capture determines values” and that “culture, religion, and moral philosophy play only rather small causal roles in the story of human values” (2015, 5, 10, emphasis added). He posits that the relation between energy capture and human ideas about values “is in fact causal” and that causality is in fact directional: “changes in energy capture drive changes in human values” (2015, 223).

5 The Cognitive-Coalitional Pathway to Axial Civilization

Most proponents of the third pathway operate within academic disciplines such as cognitive science, psychology, and anthropology. We call this path cognitive-coalitional because its supporters claim that the most significant factors in the axial transformation had to do with the interaction among (and adaptation of) cognitive and coalitional tendencies that had evolved during the early Holocene. Here the “endpoint” – or primary indicator – of axial civilizations is not transmundane soteriology, the god/king distinction, or high-end centralized states, but a complex cultural coalescing made possible (and held together) by a shift in a human population toward greater reliance on a certain kind of cognitive capacity in the organization of human life. Merlin Donald has called this the shift from “mythic culture” to “theoretic culture” (1993).

The most distinctive variables in this pathway are the non-shaded boxes depicted in Figure 3. The reader will immediately notice, however, that two boxes from the other pathways also appear as stepping stones on this postulated road to axiality (represented by dotted arrows). As in the earlier diagrams, this is our reconstruction of a plausible pathway that can be derived from the empirical evidence and theoretical developments presented by scholars in the relevant fields. The focus here is less on the ideological and material conditions for axiality and more on the evolution of new modes of cultural cohesion made possible by new expressions of cognitive capacities.

Figure 3
Figure 3

The cognitive-coalitional pathway

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

Widespread belief in the existence of disembodied intentional forces that could be watching (and punish norm violators) decreased the number of cheaters and freeloaders in early ancestral environments and increased the social cohesion of human groups. This is the basic claim of the broad “supernatural punishment” hypothesis (Watts et al. 2015; Johnson 2015). Such beliefs would have enhanced the capacity of individuals to cooperate with one another as well as their capacity to compete with out-groups for resources. Some scholars argue that it was belief in bigger, smarter, and more punitive moralizing gods that drove the transformation of civilizational forms that led to the axial age (Shariff and Norenzayan 2011; Gervais and Norenzayan 2012; McNamara, Norenzayan, and Henrich 2014). Populations with high levels of belief in this sort of “high god” would have fed the growth of competing groups of priestly elites.

The “ritual modes” theory (Whitehouse 2004) also plays an important role in this pathway. Evidence suggests that rituals typically come in one of two forms. First, “imagistic” rituals, which are high-arousal and low-frequency, facilitate the initiation of individuals into relatively egalitarian small-scale societies. “Doctrinal” rituals, on the other hand, which are low-arousal and high-frequency, are characteristic of larger-scale societies and require more complex hierarchies to maintain orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Imagistic rituals create intense bonds in local communities while doctrinal rituals foster identification with larger and more extended social groups. Whitehouse argues that the shift from imagistic to doctrinal modes of ritual engagement played a central role in the emergence of more complex religious hierarchies and the expansion of theoretic cultures (Whitehouse and Hodder 2010; Atkinson and Whitehouse 2011).

Figure 3 represents our reconstruction of a plausible cognitive-coalitional pathway to axial civilizations based on our assessment of the empirical data and theoretical arguments in the literature. Part of the beauty of the methodology behind MAxiM is that those who disagree with us are free to alter the causal architecture and test their own alternative proposals. Computational models encourage scholars to render their concepts more explicit, and surface their assumptions about the connections among them. It also provides a new way to explore the possible links between one’s favorite theories and theories from other disciplines. Below we will explain how our model is implemented and report on the results of our simulation experiments. First, however, we need to show how (and why) we integrate these theories within a single postulated system that can help explain the emergence of the axial age.

6 Integrating Three Major Theorized Pathways to Axiality

We are certainly not the first to argue that these pathways may partially overlap. Each of these theories has empirical support, and so it is no surprise that advocates of one would be tempted by features of another. Most scholars who favor the ideological-political path are not ignorant of the material and social conditions at work in the axial age (e.g., Eisenstadt et al. 1986). Bellah was clearly aware of some of the cognitive and coalitional factors that contribute to axiality; he borrowed heavily from Donald’s conception of “theoretic culture” in his magnum opus on the evolution of religion through the axial age (Bellah 2011). Another example of such openness is Seth Abrutyn who, although he emphasizes the role of priestly elites or “religious entrepreneurs” and strongly resists “materialist” interpretations of axiality, still ends up acknowledging that a “confluence” of various technological and economic forces, population growth, and social inequality contributed to the “theorized disjunction between the mundane and the transmundane, the ‘age of criticism,’ the strain towards historicity and agentiality, and all of the other ways Axial Age scholars characterize symbolic change during that time period” (Abrutyn 2014, 124).

Most proponents of the third pathway are also aware that the causal relations between key variables contributing to axiality sometimes appear to be reciprocal. For example, Norenzayan and colleagues stress the “causal processes that link the adoption of certain religious beliefs to group success,” but also allow for the possibility of bi-directional influence in some historical cases (Norenzayan et al. 2016, 14, 18). Many other theorists whose work relates to the cognitive-coalational pathway are also quite comfortable with aspects of the material-social hypothesis. Based on an analysis of environmental bioclimatic data and global distribution of belief in moralizing high gods, some researchers suggest that “the emerging picture is neither one of pure cultural transmission nor of simple ecological determinism, but rather a complex mixture of social, cultural, and environmental influences” (Botero et al. 2014, 1, emphasis added). Does “materialist” intensification drive “sociopolitical” hierarchy, or vice versa? A phylogenetic study of 155 Austronesian-speaking societies provided “support for a reciprocal coevolutionary relationship between the two variables … highlighting the importance of social as well as material factors as drivers of cultural evolution” (Sheehan et al. 2018).

Advocates of the material-social hypothesized pathway also typically recognize the relevance of other factors that played a role in the emergence of axial civilizations. Ian Morris, for example, observes that there is something like a feedback loop in the dynamics of the axial age, acknowledging that rising energy capture is “itself an almost-inevitable cultural adaptation to changing environments and the growing stock of knowledge” (Morris 2015, 170, emphasis added). A similar attitude is displayed by Stephen Sanderson, who clearly identifies the main causal mechanisms in religious evolution as population demographics (larger groups), advances in subsistence and warfare technology, and new modes of economic exchange such as writing and record keeping. Although he insists that the “principal causal factors” driving the axial age transition were “material forces,” Sanderson acknowledges that there is a sense in which axial religions can be viewed as “biocultural” adaptations (2018, 219–220). He emphasizes the primary role of demographic, technological, and economic factors in a “socioecological context” for determining which ideas catch on among large numbers of people; still, new religious ideas did have to emerge before they could spread in the axial age (2018, 201).

So, most scholars of the axial age are somewhat open to the possibility that the engine behind this civilizational transformation was a complex adaptive system with a multiplicity of variables that can be clarified by a multiplicity of theories from different disciplines. MAxiM attempts to weave these pathways together into one causal architecture. The next step is to link the ideological-political and cognitive-coalitional pathways. This integration is depicted in Figure 4.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Integrating the ideological-political and the cognitive-coalitional paths

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

Notice that this synthesis involves three new postulated causal connections (indicated by lines with white arrowheads). More complex forms of social organization are fostered by cultural differentiation. Belief in and ritual engagement with moralizing high gods are dependent on increased axiological reflexivity. And, finally, we argue that cosmological and soteriological visions of a transmundane Reality ground political distinctions of the God/King type. The details of each part of this synthesis are clarified below and in Appendix A of the online supplemental materials.

The last step in the construction of our new integrative conceptual model is to link the material-social pathway to the other two. Figure 5 depicts the final synthesis of all three theoretical frameworks, which produces the multiple axialities model (MAxiM).

Figure 5
Figure 5

Conceptual integration of three theories about the emergence of axial age civilizations

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

Only two lines (with white arrowheads) are added in this final stage of constructing the causal architecture. The first is the line from “information technology” to “cultural memory,” and the second is the line from “high-end centralized states” to the “God/King distinction.” The tools that supported the transmission of cultural memory through writing and accounting would have been fostered by increased emphasis on the development of technologies that facilitated the transfer of information. And the distinction between god and king would have been supported not only by priestly elites but also by the bureaucratic structures reinforcing highly centralized states.

7 MAxiM: A Computational Simulation of the “Axial Age”

With the theoretical synthesis of Figure 5 in hand, we are now ready to implement MAxiM within a system-dynamics model (SDM) and test the plausibility of its computational architecture through a series of simulation experiments. A SDM expresses the “flow” of some quantity between “stocks” where the flow is governed by “flow rates.” Differential equations define the relationship between stocks and flow rates.

In the case of MAxiM, the SDM simulates the flow of people, from birth, through exposure to axial and pre-axial (or “traditional”) ways of thinking, shifts from one way of thinking to the other, until death. It is thus a kind of conversion model; boxes represent stocks (of people), arrows are flows (of people), and double triangles are flowrates (see Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6

The conversion component of the model, showing the role of six key variables related to birth rates of people with the two kinds of worldviews (traditional and axial), rates of exposure to people of the other kind, and rates of conversion for those exposed.

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

SDMs also typically have feedback systems, control parameters, and key variables. The key feedback loop in MAxiM is related to resource scarcity and population through the parameter carryingCapacity, the variable resourceScarcity, and the population (the sum of tradPeople and axialPeople); resourceScarcity impacts birth rates. The six key variables are arrayed along the top of Figure 6: two birth rates for traditional (tradBirthRate) and axial (tradAxialBirth) people, two exposure rates of one type to the ways of thinking of the other (tradExpToAxialRate and axialExpToTradRate), and two conversion rates for those exposed (tradConvToAxialRate and axialConvToTradRate).

This conversion model is applicable to a host of situations where people can change their way of thinking or social affiliations. The details depend on how the six key variables at the top of Figure 6 are generated. This is where the conceptual integration and causal architecture depicted in Figure 5 come in. Figure 7 indicates the relationship between this architecture and the six key variables (on the right). We will return below to the control parameters on the left. The heart of the model is the causal architecture represented by the circles (variables) and arrows (causal links) in the center of Figure 7. This generative component of the model informs the six key variables that drive the conversion component (described above). The definitions of each concept (variable) in this architecture, as well as the intuitive mathematical formulae that express the effects they have on one another, are specified in the online supplemental materials: https://github.com/SimRel/MAxiM.

Figure 7
Figure 7

The generative component of the model, which produces the six flowrates that feed into the conversion component of the model.

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

In order to model feedback loop dynamics – one of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems and a feature of the theoretical debates surrounding the axial age transition – we introduced four additional variables besides those identified in the theoretical synthesis described above. These are represented by the gray circles in Figure 7.

  • axiality: expresses the degree to which a society embraces in its institutional form a highly centralized, differentiated, “theoretic” culture characterized by a distinction between the king and God (or ultimate reality) and a “global” vision of a religious utopia. A high value for the axiality variable would indicate an axial civilization and a low value a traditional (pre-axial) civilizational form.

  • axialitypro: an incrementing mechanism by which axiality is increased in the population; it combines the impact of all variables capable of increasing axiality.

  • axialitycon: a decrementing mechanism by which axiality is decreased in the population; it combines the impact of all variables capable of decreasing axiality.

  • axialproport: the percentage of the population with axial worldviews (supplied from the conversion part of the model, see Figure 8 below). The variables axialitypro and axialitycon are amplified or suppressed by the proportion of people of both types (that is, traditional and axial worldviews), captured in the variable axialproport.

Figure 8
Figure 8

The full multiple axialities model

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

Figure 7 also shows the control parameters of MAxiM, depicted as grey circles with black notches. These parameters, which are defined in detail in Appendix B of the online supplemental materials, can be used to express different conditions under which an axial transmission may or may not occur. Collectively, they define a multidimensional space that we can analyze to discover the model’s behavior. These parameters inform the model behavior by impacting the causal architecture, which in turn yield the six rates for birth, exposure, and conversion that drive the conversion component of the model. Figure 8 depicts the relationship between the model’s generative and conversion components, including the way in which the former produces the flow rates for the latter and the latter provides the proportion of people with an axial mindset (axialproport), thereby regulating the causal architecture.

8 Results and Interpretation

The model’s parameter space has regions of stable behavior: an equilibrium regime for a traditional society and an equilibrium regime for an axial society. For many combinations of parameter settings, both equilibrium regimes are present in the model, and for those cases we identified transition pathways from one equilibrium regime to the other. We first present our analysis of the pathways that the model produced through which societies transition from traditional to axial. Then we offer an analysis of the conditions under which the axial transition does and does not occur.

8.1 Transition Dynamics

Because MAxiM involves an integration of theoretical frameworks, some of which focus on worldviews and others on institutional form, the model allows the number of people holding axial worldviews (the axialproport variable) to change independently from the degree to which the civilization is axial in social and institutional form (the axiality variable). This enables us to explore how these two variables behave during the transition from a traditional equilibrium regime to an axial equilibrium regime, when that transition occurs.

It turns out that the axial transition does not always occur, but that it occurs in more or less the same way whenever it does occur. Figures 9 and 10 display the recurring pattern of the transition. In Figure 9, the green line is the number of people with axial worldviews and the orange line the number of people with traditional worldviews, out of a maximum potential population of 10,000 (the actual population is lower due to resource constraints). The number of axial people slowly increases from close to zero at time zero until it reaches a transition about 80 decades in, after which axial people rapidly increase in number and come to dominate the population, reaching near saturation around 600 years after the transition begins. The parameter settings for this particular run are: minbirthrate = 0.9 [per person], maxbirthrate = 2.5 [per person], transmundaneimp = 0.99 [range: 0–1], technologyagric = 0.55 [range: 0–1], technologyother = 0.8 [range: 0–1], stress = 0.54 [range: 0–1], changerate = 0.01 [range: 0–1], axialitymin = 0.01 [range: 0–0.1], tradcling = 0.1 [range: 0–1], resistchange = 0.1 [range: 0–1], carryingCapacity = 10,000. For other parameter settings, the axial transition may occur much earlier, and take a different length of time to complete, but it always has this structure when it does occur. The shaded section in Figure 9 indicates the start of the transition.

Figure 9
Figure 9

The number of people with traditional and axial worldviews over time. The horizontal axis counts decades in model time. The shaded section is the time period focused on in Figure 10.

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

How does the axiality variable (the degree to which a society embraces in its institutional form a highly centralized, differentiated, “theoretic” culture characterized by a distinction between the king and God – or ultimate reality – and a “global” vision of a religious utopia) change during this transition? Our investigations of the phase space of the model showed that there is no stable value for the axiality variable between 0 (the minimum) and 1 (the maximum). In contrast to the slow transition of the proportion of people with axial worldviews, the axiality variable changes rapidly, in the space of about two generations.

Figure 10 displays the beginning of this transition period, with the green line representing the proportion of people with axial worldviews (axialProp = axialproport) and the orange line representing axiality, which starts becoming unstable around 80 simulated decades into a simulation run and, with a few fits and starts, completes a comprehensive transition within 5 decades. Once the institutional transformation is complete, there is a relatively rapid increase of the proportion of people with axial worldviews, followed by an asymptotic approach to 100% (refer back to Figure 9).

Figure 10
Figure 10

Axial transition in two variables: slow increase in axial worldviews punctuated by a rapid change in civilizational form, and followed by a rapid increase in the proportion of people holding axial worldviews.

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

This suggests that the number of people holding axial worldviews must reach a threshold before an axial civilizational transformation can occur. The threshold varies with model parameters, but there is always a threshold. This means that ideas and ideation matter, to some degree. But this result also suggests that axial ideas require an axial civilizational transformation before they can become widespread and dominant. This means ideology and cognition are secondary to social and material circumstances, to some degree. Jointly, these insights affirm the core convictions of the three types of theories we integrated in the causal architecture of MAxiM, while also challenging the idea that any one of those theories provides a comprehensive explanation.

8.2 Parameter Space

To further explore MAxiM’s behavior, we ran a parameter variation experiment. Because the model has no stochastic elements, we ran each combination of parameter settings only once (see Appendix E in the online supplemental material for the details of the parameter variation experiment). The variation of these parameters resulted in a total of 2,304,000 unique simulation runs. We used the resulting dataset to determine the conditions under which the axiality transition occurs, and to run sensitivity analyses on parameters and key variables. An outline of all these conditions is provided in Appendix E of the online supplemental material. The latter also includes a discussion of ways in which this experiment relates to predictions made by proponents of the pathways to axiality described in the first part of this article.

Figure 11 depicts a faceted graph of all simulation runs from the parameter variation experiment. In each facet, the vertical axis is axialproport (the proportion of people with axial worldviews) and the horizontal axis is axiality (the degree to which the civilization is axial in form). Color corresponds to energycapt, with high-frequency colors (blue, violet) indicating high energy capture and low-frequency colors (red, orange) indicating low energy capture. The size of the graph marker indicates the size of the punishment variable and the shape of the marker the level of cultdiff variable. The four facets simplify the diagram by dividing the cases based on the number of people with axial worldviews, from low to medium to high to very high.

Figure 11
Figure 11

Results of a parameter variation experiment displaying five variables: axiality, axialproport, energycapt, punishment, and cultdiff.

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

Figure 11 makes clear that the axial transition in civilizational form occurs only when the energycapt variable is high. The axial transition rarely occurs unless enough people hold axial worldviews, and it almost always occurs when a lot of people hold axial worldviews. When the axial transition does occur, cultdiff and punishment variables tend to be high (as do most of the other variables under these circumstances). The two-equilibrium-regime characteristic of MAxiM is demonstrated by the near-absence of intermediate values for the axiality variable. This means that energy capture is a necessary condition for the axial transition, affirming the material-social theory; that the prevalence of axial worldviews and cultural differentiation are near-necessary conditions for the axial transition, affirming the ideological-political pathway; and that belief in supernatural punishment is a near-necessary condition for the axial transition, affirming the cognitive-coalitional path.

Figure 12 depicts further results from the same parameter variation experiment. The faceting and axes are the same as in Figure 11, as is energy capture. This time, however, the size of the graph marker indicates the magnitude of the highgods variable and the shape of the marker the level of reflexivity variable. This finding shows that belief in moralizing high gods and embrace of axiological reflexivity are also near-necessary conditions for the axial transition to occur in the model, further supporting the ideological-political and the cognitive-coalitional pathways.

Figure 12
Figure 12

Results of a parameter variation experiment displaying five variables: axiality, axialproport, energycapt, reflexivity, and highgods.

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340043

This exploration of MAxiM’s parameter space offers additional support for the plausibility of our theoretical integration of the three main hypothesized pathways and reinforces concerns about claims that any one theory can provide a comprehensive explanation of the axial transition.

At this stage of analysis, the model can be “face-validated” by comparing the results of the simulation experiments to what we know historically about the emergence of the axial age. For example, our findings are consistent with a recent quantitative comparative historical analysis of 414 societies over the last 10,000 years, which found a common pattern in the “tempo” of evolutionary change in human social systems (Turchin et al. 2017). Their analysis revealed that many historical trajectories “exhibit long periods of stasis or gradual, slow change interspersed with sudden large increases in the measure of social complexity over a relatively short time span.” The authors concluded that the evolution of stable larger polities requires “a relatively rapid change in sociopolitical organization, including the development of new governing institutions and social roles” (2017, 7).

Our experiments on MAxiM, which were performed before the publication of this study, indicate that the emergence of axial age civilizations would indeed have had to follow this sort of “punctuated equilibrium” pattern (see Figure 10 above). Unlike previous models, however, MAxiM is also able to account for the role of ideological-political and cognitive-coalitional mechanisms in the generation of the axial age.

9 Conclusion

Materially, this paper contributes to our understanding of the axial age by providing an overarching integration of multiple theories about the causal factors involved in this change in civilizational form. Methodologically, it adds to the growing body of literature demonstrating the value of computer modeling and simulation as a tool for theorizing about the complex interactions among cognitive and cultural developments in human history. Other scholars may not like our general proposal, or may disagree with particular aspects of it. By setting out our assumptions about the relevant factors in such detail, and outlining our theoretical integration so openly, we hope to have made it easier for them to criticize us and generate or reformulate their own proposals.

Ian Morris – our primary representative of the material-social pathway – refers to foragers, farmers, and fossil fuels as a shorthand way of expressing the key stages along the evolution of the organization of human social life from hunter-gathering, sedentary-agricultural lifestyles, to the modern world. Proponents of the ideological-political pathway might prefer to speak of pagans, priests, and pluralists. Supporters of the cognitive-coalitional pathway, on the other hand, might speak of the shift from territoriality, to axiality, and finally to modernity by referring to beliefs in ghosts, gods, and governments. Our computational model suggests that the core insights of each of these theoretical frameworks can be integrated within a single architecture that incorporates all of their most significant variables and causal claims.

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