The rebirth of God
Does God emerge in every simulation?
Happy Saturday morning,
This one is longer than usual. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time and will continue to write about — trying different angles each time.
This one combines mythological thinking with the theological, mixing in some anthropology and evolutionary biology. It’s a hoot.
Let me know what y’all think. I’m still trying to understand everything, and I appreciate a good conversation at any rate.
Ricky Gervais has a bit where he says, “If everyone magically forgot everything humans have learned, we would eventually rediscover mathematics and science–but not the Bible.”
Seriously–in good faith–is that true? I heard him say this a few years ago, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.
Let’s try on a thought experiment:
Imagine you were put on a desert island with 100 other people.
Now imagine that all your memories were erased. Everyone forgets about bearded men in the sky, many-handed blue gods of destruction, Avogadro's number, the Brothers Grimm, Pi, the golden rule, and Harry Potter. Poof. Gone.
You find yourself on the island with detailed instructions on how to farm the land, hyper-productive seeds, important mathematical formulas on some laminated paper, and tools. You have a shortcut to abundance through a mysterious scientific benefactor. No great struggles.
Would it be possible for this society to remain “secular?” How many generations would your utopia of reason last?
In short, you can't build a society without gods. And this is because of the inevitable progression from attention to story to myth to gods.
There are 4 phases:
Attention becomes story
Story becomes myth
Myth becomes gods
Gods become God
Your tribe dies if this process doesn’t go right. It’s all mediated by attention. Here’s why:
Part 1: Attention becomes story
Imagine if I dropped you naked in the middle of the swamps of Louisiana at night. You certainly wouldn’t be bored. You would be paying attention to every little sound and movement like hell.
That’s what this situation would be like. Everyone–and this is very important for the rest of our journey–is paying attention.
“Who can I trust?” “Where are we?” “What is my place in the pecking order?” “Who is the leader?” Unconsciously and consciously, these thoughts and others fly through the minds of everyone at a mile a minute.
Very slowly, you begin to make contact. You realize you all speak the same language. You realize you can’t remember anything. Great–something in common.
The most extroverted among you speaks up, saying the most pressing thing, “We need to find food and water.” The ice is slightly broken. Pecking orders slowly emerge from the primordial unknown. You automatically sort yourselves by gender, height, physical strength, and attractiveness. This allows you to get things done. It is low-resolution, but necessary.
Inevitably, conflict arises. Some engage in dominance disputes. Others watch the drama carefully. Gossip spreads, and the group decides who “wins,” any given engagement. Over time, the social status of each of the 100 is firmly established through a series of instances where the rest of the group observes and judges.
The group will likely all have the same opinion of the pecking order, even if they never explicitly say it to one another. Human beings are hyper-aware of social standings.
They arrive at the social order through exchanges of the 1’s and 0’s of morality: gossip and anecdotes. Your group gathers this information in a frenzy because otherwise you always have to be highly alert, anxious, and attentive. The social order is there to simplify your cognition. You absolutely need it to survive.
Everyone who gossips closely examines the facial expression of the person they are giving the tea. Based on how scandalized the expression becomes, the person gets a sense of how juicy the gossip is. This is how spoken social norms slowly map themselves directly on the human nervous system.
The same goes for anecdotes. Depending on the listeners' reactions, they will get a feel for which behaviors are the most positive, heroic, and so on.
Keep in mind this process is not arbitrary nor morally relative. Certain behaviors (stealing, cheating, and lying) are self-defeating. Technically, they create more entropy on your island. While others (sacrifice, generosity, and courage) are self-sustaining and positive-sum. They create more harmony and abundance. We have an evolutionary instinct to enforce good behavior and punish bad based on long-term and communal sustainability. Moreover, we tend to mate with individuals who display the latter behaviors, building morality into our genetic code.
This is well-documented by primatologist Frans De-Waal in Primates and Philosophers.
The moral fingerprint of your society is unique, depending on millions of factors, but the structure of the fingerprint is not infinitely malleable. Morals have a biological basis. Bold claim: moral relativism is wrong.
Over time, certain types of people (creative and extraverted by temperament) will take a large sample of these anecdotes and gossip and weave them into stories. Like gossipers, these storytellers will optimize their stories for attention. What elicits people’s attention could be a sense of closure, clarity, outrage, knowing, purpose, and so on. Morality and the natural world fuse together in the form of myths that guide behavior and general response to unforeseeable changes. This is an imperfect and ever-adapting process. Outrage, as an example of a less desirable motivator, might work in the short term, but tends to age poorly. In our world, this is like news, tabloids, etc. Similarly, archetypal and noble stories may ring false to cynical ears, but they tend to stand the test of time. Star Wars is an example of something that does a good job of doing both at once. Incidentally, that’s also what makes it worth billions of dollars.
Like balancing on the back of a snake, stories seek to stabilize our sensibilities in our ever-changing environment.
The more closely people pay attention to the stories (and remember them), the closer it is to a good story. That’s how storytellers always end up telling the same types of stories, no matter where in the world they are (Campbell’s “monomyth.”) For example, the structure of the hero’s journey is the same for aboriginal Australians as it is for South America natives–even though these people would never have contact. This is an emergent underlying fingerprint of mythical/moral structures. There are many more examples of common motifs, including dragons, floods, rebirth, and underworlds.
They will tell two kinds of general stories: comedies (meta-anecdotes) and tragedies (meta-gossip).
This process will continue to refine over many years.
By the time you are getting old, there are a handful of good stories about the great people you knew during your lifetime. You pass them down to your children.
Your children pass them down to their children.
That’s when they begin to change form.
Part 2: Story becomes myth
After a few generations, the society used the scientific information left for them to farm the land, build houses for everyone, and craft beautiful social places to gather. Some people have gardens, some raise animals, and others spend their time reading and writing.
A few of the more brilliant individuals are studying mathematical principles and reverse engineering important technological breakthroughs.
You will also begin to have a stable set of stories. Heroic tales, romantic tragedies, and grand adventures. Some of the incidents might have literally happened–but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the stories are the abstraction of all the interesting gossip and anecdotes from your tribe over the decades.
Instead of having to memorize all the gossip of everyone in the tribe, you can simplify to the stories. Again, we are trying to optimize the price of cognition.
Stories, seen from this perspective, are the mathematics of meaning. The symbols may change, but the formulas are roughly constant. They prevent you from returning to what it was like at the beginning–when you had to pay a huge amount of painful attention. Now, the stories allow you to relax a little. You can predict the behaviors of others well enough because they follow the guidelines of the established stories and rituals.
Anyone who doesn’t is quickly punished.
For example, imagine if you were talking to someone at the watering hole and they decided to lie down in front of you. Strange. Breaks social rituals. You punish this person by avoiding them and telling others to avoid them, too.
Stories guide the behavior of your tribe to allow flourishing by preventing too much chaos in the social dynamic.
Myths, on the other hand, are the abstraction of many, many stories across time. They are structural by definition. They are also deeply in the world of the symbolic, so they have the capacity to seem strange to the analytical mind–similar to a dream. They creep into the right brain, which is more interested in wholistic thinking and patterns, and less interested in the forensic truth of the left brain.
Myths even go as deep as to be genetic. For example, the myth of the holy mother and child is profoundly deep because that’s how human beings reproduce.
If you destroy that particular myth, your tribe dies out. The myth is self-selecting. Those who choose not to worship the mother and child won’t be around in the future to propagate that myth. Myths vary in importance like that–ranging from necessary for survival to helpful on a hunt.
Now and then, a mystic (or a genius) will come along and culminate the myths into a single, embodied phenomenon. Take all the stories of great hunters, for example, and abstract the essence from them. What do you get? Roughly, Artemis. Goddess of the hunt.
Do the same thing for musicians; you get Apollo.
Now, you might wonder, “why do we have to personify these abstractions? Why can’t we just call them patience or the spirit of the music? Why do they have to be super-people?”
Part 3: Myth becomes gods
After a few more decades, you have developed into a unique and interesting culture, filled with idiosyncratic myths and legends. Your art and architecture will reflect all of this.
You will have temples for your unique gods which reflect the ocean around your island, the island itself, and perhaps a god to represent the mysterious technological benefactors. All patterns your tribe encounters, in other words, are encoded in the personalities and relationships between your gods. The stories are told about them – and the masses judge their accuracy in the “canon”.
Memorable stories are kept; forgettable ones are – obviously – forgotten.
But, now, there’s a new problem: there are too many myths and stories for one person to memorize. The tribe has another problem of complexity: what god to pay attention to. This causes anxiety again. What are the best stories? Who is the best god?
A few competing temples pop up where people go to worship. Some members of the tribe move to distant parts of the island to worship their gods.
Let’s pause: This all seems like very strange behavior…
Your tribe is rich with resources and has access to high-level mathematics and scientific breakthroughs left behind by the mysterious benefactors. Why do you need temples to “fake” gods?
Because when you need to know how to act, you can’t memorize an endless list of moral tales. You need to simplify the code. You need something to embody.
When you admire someone, you copy their bodily movements (unconsciously, and, no, you can’t help it). For a clear example of this, watch how children copy the movements of their parents or an older kid they like.
This mimicry has been going on from the beginning of your tribe–most people embodying high-status individuals, and then the stories about high-status individuals. This is how “moral” behavior is passed from person to person.
You are not a brain in a jar. You already know this–you can theorize about finally losing weight all you want–but nothing happens until you start making bodily, behavioral changes. Usually, it helps to watch someone in great shape and do what they do (see how that works?)
That’s why gods need to be embodied, too.
To understand and use ideals, we must identify and embody the spirit of the ideal carefully. That’s why people spent thousands of hours painting the gods. They want to get a feel for what it’s like to be them, down to their form. What does rage dance like? What is the facial structure of desire?
In this way, the gods are not just a reflection of our reality or a “metaphor”–they are also tools to leverage our embodied behavior closer to some ideal.
That’s why people all throughout history built temples for various gods. It’s a set and setting to more properly get you in the frame of consciousness that will make you more likely to bring about that behavior in more pure ways.
Quite literally, the spirit of Mars built his temples in Rome. That makes them so extraordinary to be in–even in ruins. They reflect the very attitude that brings the god into focus. If this sounds far-fetched to your modern ears, ask yourself, “who builds a McDonald's?” No one in particular. What, then? Or who?
Think of temples as societal vision boards if it helps. It’s close to the truth.
You’ll hear people say that all that behavior of building temples and worshiping “fake” gods is irrational–but they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Ancient people likely had higher IQs than modern people. They were adapted to survival, modern people are more adapted to living in big cities and surviving pandemics (A la Guns, Germs, and Steel). Assuming we’re smarter than they were is a mistake.
While ancient people building these temples couldn’t verbally explain why they were working toward the embodiment of an ideal, that’s what was happening. It’s only after the development of sophisticated abstract language that we can reflect on this behavior now. And, by the way, you don’t develop sophisticated abstract language without embodying an ideal of “truth” for centuries. That’s the logos for Christians and Jews. The Tao for some Easterners. Enlightenment for others.
A few generations after amnesia, your desert island would have its own unique (but not totally–like a fingerprint) pantheon of gods.
This is the most useful tool your people have access to. Weirdly, it’s more important than food. You can’t say why, but that’s how you act. Even in “rational” modern America, we spend more money on media (6.9% of GDP) than food (5%).
On the island, too, your children’s children will spend most of their wealth building temples to worship their gods–not because they are superstitious savages, but because they want to leverage themselves to higher and higher ideals.
Part 4: Gods become God
After a few more generations pass, war breaks out.
There are too many gods to worship in your tribe. The tribes that moved to the other side of the island want to convert your people to their ways. They encroach on your sacred spaces. There is conflict. Death.
You are back to the beginning–too much complexity. Too much to pay attention to. We need to simplify…
Inevitably, a hierarchy of gods appears.
If you have anything, you have to decide what is most important. You often don’t have the luxury of equality.
To bring this into stark contrast, imagine your home is on fire. Which is more important: your child or your cat? Hard question–but pulls into focus a hard fact: we must value some things more than others to know how to act. Otherwise, we are frozen in inaction, infighting, and chaos.
So, through stories, myths, and legends, your pantheon of gods will slowly morph into a triangle. A pyramid. A mountain. One god will reach the top. Again, you might notice the universal symbolism here. It is not an accident.
This process, too, happened in real life.
The Hebrews, famously, told the Pharo of Eqypt that their gods weren’t the one, true God.
In another part of the world, Socrates claimed that he didn’t believe in the gods, but believed there was only one God.
People, given enough social stability and wealth and time always tend toward monotheism.
Monotheism is a unification of the psychological forces that compel the behavior of a people.
Polytheistic people are not usually unified enough in their goals and behaviors to create great empires. If they do, they usually become monotheistic.
The same thing happens on an individual scale (fractal patterns all the way down). Children start out very polytheistic. Just watch a 2-year-old shift wildly from one motivational force to another. They have competing desires and will flip from Mars (kicking and screaming) to Aphrodite (sharing) and back again in a second. Parents will know this.
As they grow older, they begin to unify the warring factions of their psyche. Or, they don’t, and they have a very challenging life.
This raises one of the most interesting questions of all time: What are the psychological qualities of the king of all gods?
After your society becomes monotheistic, there is a good chance that the god of all gods will have some universal and self-sustaining characteristics.
After centuries of gossip, stories, myths, and gods, they begin to combine. People take the most interesting and salient parts, and those congeal into a great book. This book is written by no one and everyone, all the time.
This book attempts to answer one central question for humanity: Are there universal qualities we should unite ourselves toward? Or is any old god as good as any other to worship?
For the Egyptians, it was attention (full circle). Horus, the god-king, was a bird with the famous “eye of Horus.” Attention, not intelligence. Important distinction.
You see this theme pop up independently all over the world. The god of all gods is not the smartest, the greatest warrior, or the most physically powerful. It has something more to do with attention and speaking the truth.
Thor, for another example, is kind of an idiot. His brother Loki is the smart one. But Thor is the hero. He wins in the end to become king. Why? Because a fool can always learn. Someone who thinks he knows everything can’t. See how that connects to attention? The fool is humble enough to pay attention.
Surely, your island would land on a similar conclusion, given enough time.
The king of all gods is a fool–but someone willing to learn, in other words, to go to the underworld (ignorance) to rise again more properly formed, over and over. In other words, a master of death and rebirth. A phoenix. See the themes? And can you guess where this is going?
After a few more generations, a trend will be noticed by the wisest among the islanders.
Who embodies the supreme willingness to let the ego die and be reborn? A god, perhaps, in human form. He is the wisest and best being in the world. Yet, he is tortured and humiliated and finally killed for his virtue. This is a story at the extreme, technically, because you can’t think of a more “essential” example. That’s the definition of archetypal.
Roughly, the story of Christ (or Buddha, for slightly different reasons) is the pinnacle of what humanity needs, not only to flourish emotionally but to not tear each other to pieces going further. Here’s exactly why: the highest and most worshipped of all values must be a value that allows itself to die and be reborn. That is the only value that, in theory at least, won’t fall in love with itself and eventually collapse under its own weight.
You must have the ultimate thing to pay attention to, and when it is paid attention to, it will give rise to the ability to create order out of chaos, no matter the circumstances. What is that thing? Symbolically, it’s the cross. X marks the spot. If you can hold your attention at the point of maximum suffering (where you least want to look, in other words), the world will manifest for you as good as it might.
We’re back where we started. Attention is the problem (where to pay it), and attention is the solution (look where you least want to look). The poison is also the antidote, as it so often goes (ever wonder why there are snakes on the sides of ambulances?) This is not a unique insight to the Christians, obviously. Memento mori is a Stoic expression, for example, meaning “remember you will die.”
However, the cross allows people to embody (remember how important that part is) the lesson, instead of just logically understanding it.
If we can’t properly distribute that meme, large-scale human society is almost guaranteed to self-destruct.
Without that being the pinnacle, things quickly devolve in power games. A race to the bottom. The simulation ends.
So, after who-knows-how-long, your desert island has rebirthed God with a new Bible.
If the simulation survived, God would be reborn. Inevitably.
Sorry, Ricky–I think you’re wrong about this one.
Thanks for reading,
Big thank you toand
What’s moving me:
I’ve been reading Nietzsche’s “The Anti-Christ” and he makes several salient points that you miss here. The dying god is, I agree, the pinnacle of all value and the cross is the place to fix attention in such a way that we can embody that nobility, that divinity. The Bible, however, and especially Paul’s letters in the New Testament are actually antithetical to this idea, this archetype of the dying and resurrected god. Paul perverted the story (due to his own very specific and perhaps unrepeatable cultural and religious heritage) into a religion of decadence rather than one of nobility. The New Testament is tainted by this decadence, precisely in the idea that the Christ died FOR us (I.e. so we don’t have to) rather than that the Christ died in the same way that he lived: without resistance, or resentment, willing to meet death and be shaped by it. So yes, I think any human culture will inevitably come to the idea of the dying/resurrected god (and all of them have in some way: Osiris, Odin, Shiva, etc.) but the particular quality of the Bible we have now is specific to a certain “genius of decadence” as Nietzsche describes it that depends on the idealization of the virtues of the weak, The sick, the resentful and the vengeful. This is not the set of virtues that defines the dying god and does not bring one into relationship with that archetype, congealed and worshipped by our ancestors. So the Bible we have is, in some ways a book about the process you have described here. But in more influential ways it is a decadent perversion of that religious ideal.
Perhaps, however, any Bible will inevitably be commandeered by such decadent forces, simply because the nobility of the truly heroic and divine ends up protecting the all-too-many from death (I.e. allows unfit life to exist at the expense of the superfluous power of the hero). These “abortions” as Nietzsche calls them, are inevitably miserable in their ill health and inconsequence and will do what all life does: seek more power. Some or many of them will be clever enough to do so by essentially inverting the moral order that actually does contribute to the well being and future of the tribe. They will make nobility synonymous with evil and weakness/sickness synonymous with virtue thereby disempowering and disvaluing the very god they claim to serve and making humanity ill and petty across the board in the name of “equality” or “Democracy” neither of which is real, possible, or healthy for the human social system.
Perhaps this is necessary and inexorable, as all natural processes—and human religion is nothing if not a perfectly natural process (as you have described so well here)—go through a period of birth, growth, power, corruption, decay and death as an endlessly turning cycle of coming into being and passing away again.
People, given enough social stability and wealth and time always tend toward monotheism
Haunting, for the monotheist as he ultimately worships himself or worships that which is outside himself but arguably the Christian narrative presents a God capable of inhabiting the human (spirit) while encompassing and even surpassing creation (father).
Well done Taylor! I only wish I could have been a fly on the wall for those conversations with you, Michael and Grace!