Sometimes one has an idea that blazes into one’s consciousness as a solution to one particular concern, which then starts to be something much bigger than just a solution to a problem. It becomes an interesting thing in itself and starts appearing as relevant to many different areas. The idea that humans will soon start constructing their own ‘minor gods’ has been such an idea for me in the last few years. When I say minor gods, I means gods of the Greek and Viking variety, not the Abrahamic ones: powerful and obsessed independent beings, but not omnipotent or indestructible.
The idea came to me in a piece for troppo over 2 years ago when I was thinking out loud whether humanity could escape the problem that our ability to destroy ourselves is increasing all the time, whilst in every era so far there has been some small probability of us actually using weapons of mass destruction on each other. The chance of disaster came mainly from mistakes and stupidity related to political posturing (think WWI or the Cuban missile crisis), not because some evil genius planned our destruction. Just with two elements – constantly increasing fire power coupled with political systems that reward high stakes posturing – the fear then was that it was inevitable that our civilisations would run out of luck eventually and destroy themselves. I expressed the hope in that piece that our religiosity might prevent such an apocalypse, ie that we’d become obsessed about making gods and that those gods would totally change the nature of politics, essentially because we would want them to take over.
In a recent piece for a UK magazine ‘The Mint’, an outlet for diverse economic thinking, this ‘minor god’ idea is developed into a quite different direction: the notion that the advent of actual gods would cut down the most powerful humans to size and make their populations less in awe of them, and thus less willing to put up with inequality. With actual gods running around, there would be less respect for (religious) human authority, engendering a leveling. Check out the article and the magazine!
One thing I pondered along the way and that is in neither articles linked to above, is the question of whether humans can become gods in some way. It is a wish in many cultures for humans to escape their mortality and somehow become gods. I have come to dismiss that idea as fundamentally misguided about the nature of humanity, as well as somewhat dishonest about what gods actually are to humans: whilst our imagery often depict gods as resembling us, gods are not truly like us at all. The key thing about the gods we humans come up with is that there is some aspect of them that is unchanging: they are the god of something, like the god of war or the spirit of the lake. There is something timeless and unchanging about our gods.
Yet, quintessential to all human perception and actions is constant change: thinking and doing anything changes us ever so slightly. That is because we are adaptation machines, ‘designed’ to locally optimise and ultimately ‘go with the flow’. Every thought we have subtly changes the wirings of our brains. Everything we eat and breathe out subtly changes the composition of our bodies. All our interactions subtly change our social and biome realities too. We are no more capable of remaining fixed than a tree is capable of walking away. The fixed nature of the gods we imagine is thus not how we ever are or how we could be, only what we can pretend to be.
Someone who wants to be like an imagined god essentially wants the death of what makes them human. Such people are to be pitied for their naiveté and we should not fear that their hopes become true. Jonathan Swift had it exactly right in Gulliver’s Travels when he depicted amortal humans as pitiable beings, destined to murmur in forgotten languages, going more and more mad, basically being they didn’t change enough to keep up with the times.
It was a huge relief to me to jettison the idea that we humans could ever be gods. It meant I needn’t fear billionaires wanting to be gods or people who want to live forever via clones. “Let them dream and try”, I now think. It also relieved me of seeing gods as something I should desire to be (not that I had that fantasy anyway, but you know what it is like with the fantasies of others: one wonders whether they are onto something). In effect, via constantly changing, each time we do anything our previous selves die a little and a new one grows. To many that is probably a scary thought, but I find it extremely liberating. It doesn’t mean my current self wants ‘me’ to die anytime soon, but it does mean the idea of death becomes much more mundane.