Monday, August 29, 2011

What are the gods?

In Chapter Seven of A World Full of Gods, I struck pay dirt—I gleaned insight into what polytheism is about, what its gods are. But before I expound upon that insight, I wish to state my intentions with these Monday posts.

Two things for certain I believe: firstly, continuing education is a fine pursuit, and secondly, we oughtn't be modest about it. We should share what we learn. We should show it off, flaunt it. People who aren't interested needn't listen.

My purpose then with these Monday posts is to share what I learn, my goal then to stir the neurons in others' heads—if only a little. Any post receiving a comment stemming from a stirred head is a post that succeeded. It's not my goal to change anyone's mind, with the exception of people who believe they shouldn't question their own beliefs. But such exceptions are few, and they needn't listen.

The reason I claim no goal to persuade isn't to get your guard down. Rather, it's to apologize for the brevity of this post. I've had the benefit of reading a hundred pages of Greer's prose, in which he presents his case with many supporting details, presumably all with the intent to explain and persuade. I'm merely writing to explain, and I'm using far fewer words to do it. This creates gaps, and those gaps appear even wider if you presume the explanation is an argument meant to persuade. It's not. It's meant to stir.

Now, down to business.

As I said, Chapter Seven is pay dirt. From it I understand what classical polytheism claims the gods are—or I think I understand. They're not bearded men and stately women hanging out on a tall mountain in northern Greece—why else didn't Greeks climb Olympus, meet the gods, and resolve the issue once and for all?—but instead are more like the incorporeal nous of classical monotheism. Only, in the case of polytheism, the gods are numerous and finite. Here's a passage from the book.

Consider the ancient Greek idea that mountains and rivers are gods. Modern readers of classical literature often think that the ancient Greeks were talking about supernatural beings who were related to a given river or mountain, but who were distinct from what we perceive as a geographical feature. But this is not what the ancient Greeks were saying. To them, a mountain or a river was not simply a geographical feature. What we call the mountain or the river was the body, the physical expression or dimension of a more complex entity. That entity also had a self-aware personality; it could perceive, choose, desire and take action.

In other words, the gods are the consciousnesses underlying natural phenomena. This isn't a stretch. Right now I'm apt to personify Phoenix's summer, such as how it's going through a mid-life crisis and showing off to excess its still plentiful virility. Or maybe Summer is defensive about Autumn nearing too close to Summer's throne, and Summer is shouting his might. You needn't believe Summer is an actual, personable entity to understand my point that Phoenix is especially hot right now in late August, and my personification is simpler, though less precise, than describing the details of high and low temperatures, dew points, and seasonal averages.

But polytheists don't merely personify nature; they believe the gods exist. I'm personifying when describing the icy hands of the Methow River, which I fell into a few years ago, but that doesn't mean the river is alive. Personifying summer doesn't mean there exists a living Summer. Or does it?

It thus makes sense to ask whether at least some gods are embodied in nature or specific natural phenomena, or even to speculate that these gods may be the inner dimension, the dimension of awareness and mind, of the natural world. From this point of view, a god of weather could be conceptualized as the indwelling consciousness of the lower atmosphere itself, related to the complex physical structure of winds, clouds, topography and energy flows in exactly the same way that the human mind and personality relate to the physical brain and body.

Here Greer hints at that troubling question: how do we know any of the people around us are real, are conscious? How do I know? It's possible everyone around me is an automaton giving the illusion of having a mind. That they're made of the same organic compounds as I and give birth to other automatons only shows how complex and well functioning they are. So too do their well reasoned pleas that I think of them as living beings.

The answer—my working answer—is I don't know for sure. I can't even be sure whether I'm alive. But as with neutrinos' existence, the universe appears to work as though our consciousnesses exist. That is, my best guess is other people are alive. As far as mental frameworks go, ascribing minds to other people is a good one; so far it's explained human behavior my whole life—political discussions excepted, of course.

So why not accept a mental framework that ascribes minds to natural phenomena? Why give the benefit of the doubt—and, consequently, souls—to humans but not to rivers and mountains? This question hits upon our core assumptions in metaphysics and epistemology, and perhaps I'll give my own answer, for what it's worth, in a future post.


Bobby and the Presidents said...

Goal Accomplished.

Shafik said...

An important reason for not ascribing minds or souls to natural phenomena is convention.

I personally like the idea of the atmosphere, in the totality of its behavior, being self-aware and "conscious". The same goes for your Summer example, Phoenix daily Traffic, Galaxy-level consciousness, etc.

However, I would not call these phenomena gods. Why? because the contemporary idea of the word "god" brings about certain assumptions that will not be accurate of natural systems. It won't matter whether a corrective definition of the word "god" is given or not; it will be confusing to many individuals.

No matter how many times you pray to all-mighty Atmosphere, He will not listen to your plea to increase rain-fall this year for better crop yield. No matter how many times you praise and make sacrifices to Summer, She will not stop unleashing her brutal heat during the months of July and August.

Because of this, I see it as intellectually vacuous to call such phenomena "gods".

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

Bobby— I suppose.

Shafik— You gave a good answer. It's hard not to beg the question with terms like "natural" and "true" and so on, and you avoid all of them.

However, I'm not so sure "convention" is a good reason to believe or disbelieve in God's and gods' existence. As far as practical matters go, sure, loaded terminology matters, and maybe we ought to avoid using a word or term because of its connotations. But as far as argumentation goes, "convention" is unconvincing.

Here's a sketch of my own answer to my question. I think of traditionally non-conscious complex phenomena such as weather and traffic as indeed being non-conscious because we have better explanations to describe them—though those explanations are far from perfect! "Consciousness" is itself a black hole term to describe the set of very complex things in the universe we don't understand, but someday we may understand those things in a rigorous, quantified way. And when that day comes, humans will no longer be conscious. We'll just be X, describable in Y language according to Z theory.

(To nix a question before it's asked, I'm using Chaisson's idea of normalized complexity here. A human and a block of lead together are more complex than the human alone, but the human and the lead together have lower normalized complexity than the human alone. Conscious entities like brains have the highest normalized complexity we observe, as measured by energy flow divided by mass.)

In short, my answer, like yours, argues it from a practical matter—to what end we achieve the most agreeable result. On that topic, here's an intriguing question: Commonly people assume that the purpose of giving is to receive in return, but could it be that the point of giving is to benefit oneself from the direct act of giving? When I gave my answer above, I assumed the point of giving is to get something in return—i.e., the language I use is to benefit my own understanding of things. But what if this is wrong? I'm thinking how this applies to your comment about prayer.

Thanks for posting!