Like the Ancients, We Have Gods. They’ll Get Greater.

Here’s a common story about gods. Our distant ancestors didn’t understand the world very well, and their minds contained powerful agent detectors. So they came to see agents all around them, such as in trees, clouds, mountains, and rivers. As these natural things vary enormously in size and power, our ancestors had to admit that such agents varied greatly in size and power. The big ones were thus “gods”, and to be feared. While our forager ancestors were fiercely egalitarian, and should thus naturally resent the existence of gods, gods were at least useful in limiting status ambitions of local humans; however big you were, you weren’t as big as gods. All-seeing powerful gods were also useful in enforcing norms; norm violators could expect to be punished by such gods.

However, once farming era war, density, and capital accumulation allowed powerful human rulers, these rulers co-opted gods to enforce their rule. Good gods turned bad. Rulers claimed the support of gods, or claimed to be gods themselves, allowing their decrees to take priority over social norms. However, now that we (mostly) know that there just isn’t a spirit world, and now that we can watch our rulers much more closely, we know that our rulers are mere humans without the support of gods. So we much less tolerate strong rulers, their claims of superiority, or their norm violations. Yay us.

There are some problems with this story, however. Until the Axial revolution of about 3500 years ago, most gods were local to a social group. For our forager ancestors, this made them VERY local, and thus typically small. Such gods cared much more that you show them loyalty than what you believed, and they weren’t very moralizing. Most gods had limited power; few were all-powerful, all-knowing, and immortal. People mostly had enough data to see that their rulers did not have vast personal powers. And finally, rather than reluctantly submitting to gods out of fear, we have long seen people quite eager to worship, praise, and idolize gods, and also their leaders, apparently greatly enjoying the experience.

Here’s a somewhat different story. Long before they became humans, our ancestors deeply craved both personal status, and also personal association with others who have the high status. This is ancient animal behavior. Forager egalitarian norms suppressed these urges, via emphasizing the also ancient envy and resentment of the high status. Foragers came to distinguish dominance, the bad status that forces submission via power, from prestige, the good status that invites you to learn and profit by watching and working with them. As part of their larger pattern of hidden motives, foragers often pretended that they liked leaders for their prestige, even when they really also accepted and even liked their dominance.

Once foragers believed in spirits, they also wanted to associate with high status spirits. Spirits increased the supply of high status others to associate with, which people liked. But foragers also preferred to associated with local spirits, to show local loyalties. With farming, social groups became larger, and status ambitions could also rise. Egalitarian norms were suppressed. So there came a demand for larger gods, encompassing the larger groups.

In this story the fact that ancient gods were spirits who could sometimes violate ordinary physical rules was incidental, not central. The key driving force was a desire to associate with high status others. The ability to violate physical rules did confer status, but it wasn’t a different kind of status than that held by powerful humans. So very powerful humans who claimed to be gods weren’t wrong, in terms of the essential dynamic. People were eager to worship and praise both kinds of gods, for similar reasons.

Thus today even if we don’t believe in spirts, we can still have gods, if we have people who can credibly acquire very high status, via prestige or dominance. High enough to induce not just grudging admiration, but eager and emotionally-unreserved submission and worship. And we do in fact have such people. We have people who are the best in the world at the abilities that the ancients would recognize for status, such as physical strength and coordination, musical or story telling ability, social savvy, and intelligence. And in addition, technology and social complexity offer many new ways to be impressive. We can buy impressive homes, clothes, and plastic surgery, and travel at impressive speeds via impressive vehicles. We can know amazing things about the universe, and about our social world, via science and surveillance.

So we today do in fact have gods, in effect if not in name. (Though actors who play gods on screen can be seen as ancient-style gods.) The resurgence of forager values in the industrial era makes us reluctant to admit it, but a casual review of celebrity culture makes it very clear, I’d say. Yes, we mostly admit that our celebrities don’t have supernatural powers, but that doesn’t much detract from the very high status that they have achieved, or our inclination to worship them.

While it isn’t obviously the most likely scenario, one likely and plausible future scenario that has been worked out in unusual detail is the em scenario, as discussed in my book Age of Em. Ems would acquire many more ways to be individually impressive, acquiring more of the features that made the mythical ancient gods so impressive. Ems could be immortal, occupy many powerful and diverse physical bodies, move around the world at the speed of light, think very very fast, have many copies, and perhaps even somewhat modify their brains to expand each copy’s mental capacity. Automation assistants could expand their abilities even more.

As most ems are copies of the few hundred most productive ems, there are enormous productivity differences among typical ems. By any reasonable measure, status would vary enormously. Some would be gods relative to others. Not just in a vague metaphorical sense, but in a deep gut-grabbing emotional sense. Humans, and ems, will deeply desire to associate with them, via praise, worship and more.

Our ancestors had gods, we have gods, and our descendants will like have even greater more compelling gods. The phenomena of gods is quite far from dead.

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  • It’s somewhat hard to follow exactly what you are claiming is different in the two stories. I mean in both cases you have that:
    1) Early people believed in non-existent spirits with supernatural powers.
    2) Those spirits had very high-status.
    3) Eventually, after the rise of farming, rulers claimed to actually be gods giving themselves that very high-status.

    Is the suggested difference whether or not we actively desire to have (create?) super high-status entities? Thus, on the first account it just happened that we started to believe in entities with powers which made them high-status while in the second we had some kind of underlying drive to grant some entity super-high status and if it hadn’t been spirits we would have picked something/someone else?

    • Yes, a big difference is how eagerly we seek out associations with high status entities.

  • The ancients had the advantage of absence. Familiarity, proximity, and duration turn this into more fleeting fame, foibles, and follies.

  • Doesn’t this account somewhat conflict with your views on ems being primarily treated just as labor and given minimal resources?

    Wouldn’t this instead suggest a world in which at least some ems are incredibly powerful and in fact the primary decision makers for society? Moreover, if we really offer them such high status and power wouldn’t that suggest there would be substantial restrictions on copying and running such high status ems or possibly even all ems?

    • I don’t think you’ve read Age of Em. In it I depict ems as the main decision makers. I don’t see why that implies restrictions on copying.

  • Joe

    Until the Axial revolution of about 3500 years ago, most gods were local to a social group. For our forager ancestors, this made them VERY local, and thus typically small. Such gods cared much more that you show them loyalty than what you believed, and they weren’t very moralizing. Most gods had limited power; few were all-powerful, all-knowing, and immortal.

    Interesting – does this conflict with your previous claim that belief in moralising gods, and shame at the thought of their disapproval, were part of how foragers were able to become farmers? If gods weren’t like this until most of the way through the farming era, how can it have been a key enabler of that era?

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  • I’m sure it feels god-like to redefine words to boost one’s argument. But no one thinks that Neo or Mr. Smith are gods.

  • Alicia Castillo

    The need for Gods masks our need for connection, for poetry, for magic. I love math and exact sciences, I love engineering and constructions, but if you get a dog, decompose it in its pieces and put it back together, it still lacks the magic wand of life.
    We had the intimate need to connect with something larger than us in time and space. God was the concept we assigned to that need. I think is actually beyond God are human centric.
    Looking up, we are cosmos, we are made of cosmic stuff. Looking down, we are glued to Earth (or earth). I don’t think we only use God for a hierarchical solution, to validate our rank, but perhaps some of us are outliers and just don’t fit in that platform.