Oops, we’re all still pagans
You are a neuron in the mind of a giant.
Months ago, I wrote a Twitter thread about Milton’s Lucifer. It went a bit viral.
God, it made me feel weird and exposed. When I’m getting coffee, walking, talking to a friend… it’s out there. Roaming the earth, infecting people’s heads with my half-baked curiosity.
Although it’s an immaterial sort of thing, it felt very real. Realer than I would’ve thought before it happened (and even have trouble fully recalling now). It was as if a gorilla had moved into my apartment and was always hiding just out of sight – in my laundry room or behind rows of button-ups.
It bothered me so much, I stopped using Twitter.
But, when I saw virality happen to other people, it seemed unremarkable. Routine. Are they quietly being motivated by these same emotional forces? I wonder: Why are we desperately doing this virtual waltz? More accurately phrased, perhaps, what (or who) "possesses" us to play out these motions on social media?
If we’re marionettes, who’s pulling the strings? And are the puppet masters conscious (do they want things)? Do I want to be an actor in their drama?
How do we know what’s conscious?, a scientist and one of my favorite writers, wrote an article about the emergence of the possible “consciousness” of collectives like social media.
He and other researchers noticed that your consciousness emerges not through the piecemeal firing of your neurons but more like a patterned "dance." The pattern produces your consciousness, not the parts. All of the various things that you’re made of wiggle together at the right tempo to produce something that feels like to be “you.” (I’m saying “you” to invite you, reading this here and now, to notice that being “you” indeed feels like something).
Here’s the fun part: there is no reason to assume consciousness only exists in one skull at a time.
People in a concert, for example, have synced brainwaves. Heart beats and sweaty palms, all in perfect rhythm. Researchers measure it all the time – not fringe science. Just like the interaction of your brain’s many neurons causes the emergence of what it feels like to be "you," the interaction of many brains with synced brainwaves causes the emergence of what it feels like to be... what? A concert? Any seasoned performer () knows every audience has a different “personality.” How far could you go with this? Political parties? Corporations? Countries? Are they conscious too?
Erik admits that it's very bizarre to conclude that something like a concert or America might be conscious. But the fact that any of us are conscious is completely bizarre, so that's not a very good reason to dismiss it.
I love this interaction because it’s very sciency in appearance, but what is essentially being said is a scientist admitting “Yeah… I guess gods might be conscious. I don’t like that.” That’s fun.
Memes are just shallow gods
Is the “emergent entity” of the viral tweet actually more like a “neuron” in the mind of an invisible giant? What is that giant? Am I unconsciously doing its bidding?
Taking this question seriously might help me understand why I had to quit doing the Twitter threads. Intuitively, I felt some being was using me for something.famously named these emergent entities like viral tweets “memes,” because, like genes, they “want” to live and seek to propagate themselves. They survive off the “energy” of our conscious attention, so the fittest ones effectively capture and maintain your attention.
Sure, some are just viral tweets – shallow ideas that come today, go tomorrow (How often do you think about the Roman Empire?) But they can be large or small, deep or shallow. Old gods or romantic flings. Network television or the Messiah. They can motivate people to get married, sink battleships, or begin a thousand-year reign. Some are deep enough to be biological/genetic and therefore everlasting (the Great Mother). These memes “dance” among us, like brainwaves en masse, and something “emerges” from them. They are awake, and they want your attention. Without it, they die.
In other words, the deepest memes are archetypes. AKA gods. And, as we’re seeing, these archetypes might be conscious in the same way you are.
Tell tales of consciousness
Of course, we can never know what it would be like to be "the spirit of a concert," or “the virality of a meme,” just like I can never know what it's like to be you (or even to be certain that you are even conscious). But, we can measure the output of these phenomena, just like we can measure the behavior of people and infer consciousness.
At a concert, I sway with the beat. I know not to pet strangers. I know not to get on the stage and grab the microphone and read passages from my journal. At a football game, I shout in unison at the same moment as ten thousand strangers. I happily help produce a “wave” of hyped human bodies, as if some entity is using us to peacock its consciousness. Seen like this, life suddenly seems more like a surrealist painting of groaning, desirous titans.
Same thing on social media. Like the firing of neurons, people predictably react to one another. Likes, reposts, trending. As a result of these interactions, some “spirit” is produced. The nature of these entities is hard to pin down, but we still manage to talk about them. We need to talk about them. “The ___ Mob.”
People don’t seem to have opinions… opinions seem to have people.
“I have free will!” But, do I?
Maybe I can resist the desire of the higher "being" by not doing what it wants. But, like someone refusing to dance at a concert, the "antibodies'' will try to get me. I’ll feel this as peer pressure. “Why aren’t you dancing!?” Imagine if you faced the wrong direction during a movie, staring at the person sitting behind you. They would kick you out! It’s reasonable to see this as the “immune system” of a larger being – the desire of some invisible consciousness to continue to exist in homeostasis.
On Twitter, the “antibodies” came for me. Anon accounts suggested I kill myself. Motivated by the desires of the egregore, they worked to bend me to their master’s will. If I had continued to absorb that (we absorb more than we think), I would have been “infected” by its desires.
What can I do to resist?
History of this idea
To be blunt: everyone in all of human history knew this until about a hundred years ago. Not believing in gods is a weird position.
Jung described it as the collective unconscious. A realm of "archetypes" that influence all our dreams and behavior. You're basically not allowed to talk about his work in modern mainstream academia. Emergent phenomena, for complicated reasons, tend to “break” when you try to measure them, so they’ve evaded the realm of science during most of the modern age.
I see Hoel's work as the beginning of changing that. I hope.
Jung's "Red Book'' recounts first-hand surreal fantasies of talking to these spiritual "emergent entities." If I don’t understand that these entities are “real” in the sense that Hoel is spelling out, it’s an incomprehensible book. Jung sounds like he’s doing shrooms or something. But, it’s so clear that Jung was sensitive (genius) enough, I think, to have a dialogue with the emergent gestalt entities that Hoel is describing as egregores.
I can finally put some science-words to the genius intuitions of Jung. I can make a clear sense of his immense influence (and ability to predict the future). I can also begin to recontextualize the intuitions of ancient people. For example, Greek conceptualized anger as a god, Ares. Seems like a superstition to us now, but think about it…. Anger can possess you, me, or even an animal. It’s a similar phenomenon in all cases. Sometimes, it completely takes you over. It’s also immortal. It’s an emergent pattern. A stable “tune” of biological beings.
Sometimes, it’s just more useful to think of anger as a “god” than thinking of anger as mere chemicals in the brain. Which, by the way, sciency descriptions of chemicals are also just a map, not the terrain. To put a finer point on that, you aren’t “more correct” to describe each of the millions of twitches of a fighter's ligaments and the deployment of ATP to deliver kinetic energy to his opponent’s body when you could just say, “He kicked that guy's ass.” We are always using metaphors to describe patterns. At the bottom of everything, nothing gets at the truth more practically than a narrative.
Here’s a story: Twitter is an egregore. It seems to want things. What does it want?
Getting off Twitter
I don’t take ancient myths literally (as if they’re scientific texts), but understand them as intuitive descriptions of these gestalt patterns. I can retain the most powerful insights from the ancients, without also porting over all of their low-resolution impressions (which we now understand as "superstitions"). Don’t worry, I won’t start drinking mercury and measuring people’s skulls.
But I do realize that it’s dangerous to submit my will to a god I don’t understand. If I act out its will, what will I become? A puppet of whatever spirit reigns. Is that what I want? (no)
The word “god” is useful to me because it is the only word with enough drama to grip the madness. It’s not just because the word “god” is more badass sounding or something (although it is). Gods, demons, and angels. They’re metaphors (just like the word “consciousness,” by the way), which doesn’t mean “not real!” Without seeing and naming these patterns, I will continue to be absolutely baffled by people’s behavior on Twitter (including mine). If I can’t see that there is a spirit (acting out a narrative) guiding the entire thing, the decisions of individual actors seem stunningly stupid. Tired of scratching your head about demonic behavior online? This seems like a helpful explanation.
I used to just scoff at it all. People are just dumb. I’m being irrational – it’s just a tweet! But, while dismissal may be soothing for the ego, it is not good for understanding reality. Instead, I can ask myself better questions: What do these beings want? Why are they (and I) so compelled to give devotion (also a useful, yet old-fashioned word)?
Remember, this has been the central obsession of all literate people until very recently: to know the mind of God. These are not scientific pursuits, maybe, but I still need to know the answers.
So, I ask with genuine curiosity, who are you, spirit of Twitter?
The gorilla hiding in my apartment finally comes out and tells me his name. He’s an egregore who feeds on my lower desires. Outrage, procrastination, lust. Maybe that’s not who he is for you, but that’s how he shows up for me. I tell him directly “no thank you,” I am going to give my energy to something (someone) higher, if I can manage it.
I can only resist the egregores to the extent I acknowledge their existence. Otherwise, as Jung said, I don’t have ideas, ideas have me. We are tiny specks in an ocean full of leviathans.
Somehow they still fear us. Seems like we have something they don’t. Some spark of free will, maybe. It glimmers from the cracks of radical humility – finally acknowledging that we are indeed sailing in an ocean of egregores. We can’t control the wind, but we can point the sails and man the rudder.
So, I deleted Twitter from my phone. Personally, I can’t interact with that entity regularly and retain my freedom. I still use Substack, but I make sure it serves me rather than me serving it.
It’s really hard to resist modern egregors. The beasts now have access to AI-powered algorithms. But knowing their names is the first step to freedom.
Thanks toTigerfeathers and for help and feedback on this one.