Several influences molded me as a writer over the years: A fascination with classical history and mythology, a love of science fiction and fantasy, years of world travel laden with ample adventures of my own, and a deep sense of wonder about the systems of Nature, most particularly (though by no means exclusively) about the human sphere of Nature, fed by a highly analytical and imaginative mind and abundant sources on which to draw.
At around the age of 18 (in 1977 or 1978), I wrote a short psychedelic vignette called “River Palace” which was the first seed of what would later become A Conspiracy of Wizards. A couple of years later, while living in Berkeley, I started an unrelated novel in which crystalized talismans of the five elements of classical natural philosophy had magical properties that were amplified when brought together, an idea that found its way into A Conspiracy of Wizards.
Most of my 20s was dedicated to world travels and adventures and the keeping of journals laden with descriptions and contemplations. Many of the real-world, visceral descriptive passages from those journals found their way into A Conspiracy of Wizards. During this time I also read prolifically and broadly, trying to catch up on as many classics of literature and of more recent intellectual discovery as I possibly could.
One year into my career as a sociology grad student in Connecticut, having become an aficionado of Chaos Theory in the late 1980s and believing it to be a critical piece of the puzzle of the story of our existence, I wrote a vignette about Chaos and Order being the parents of the universe, and immediately knew that this would be the nucleus of the novel I had always dreamed of writing.
During my grad student career in Connecticut, I was working on my novel at the same time that I was soaking up the spectrum of social theory, designing my world and weaving bits and pieces of my gradually emerging synthesis of the social theoretical landscape into it and the story-line. I incorporated into the novel a variety of epistemological theories (including, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” most visibly in the scene of Algonion in the ice sphere), Marxist theory, microeconomic and game theory, and network analysis and epidemiology. I also incorporated my previously acquired knowledge of international relations and world history to create a more complex and in many ways “realistic” world than is found in most novels of any kind, let alone fantasy fiction. The geopolitics and geopolitical and military strategies found in the novel are, I think, particularly elaborate and faithful to the forms found in the real world.
Two years into my status as “All-But Dissertation,” not actually writing my dissertation, I left the program and my position as a college lecturer to work full time on my novel. In many ways, I realized, I had been in the Ph.D. program primarily to inform my novel. Before moving out west, I took a couple of months to do a car trip around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, during which, while camping and hiking in beautiful Acadia National Park in Maine, I fully fleshed out the story of Cholumga (derived from “Chomo Lungma,” Tibetan for “Earth Mother” and the Tibetan name for Mount Everest), the giantess trapped in the hollow mountain. I did this in part by telling the story to a young girl and her mother who I ran into while hiking, as we sat on a bluff overlooking the gorgeous autumn colors. (Also from Acadia comes the imagery of Algonion arriving at the sea as he is escaping Lokewood.)
In late 1996, I moved to a cabin in the mountains of Northern New Mexico for a year (in Cabresto Canyon, between Questa and Red River, north of Taos) to write the first draft of the novel, simultaneously focusing my informal studies more on World Mythology and World History (both long-time interests of mine, along with International Relations), including studying Joseph Campbell’s analyses of mythological motifs. The multi-hued beauty of Northern New Mexico and the Four Corners region, around which I took frequent car-and-camping trips, filtered into the imagery of the novel. I then finished the millennium in Albuquerque, teaching and taking classes, working through some of the issues and challenges with my novel, developing it further, and developing other ideas as well (such as a series of vignettes about the institutionalization of time travel, including reunions of multiple selves across time, branching historical trajectories, and the colonization of the past). I began to submit excerpts of the novel to agents and publishers, trying to line up a publication deal, but without success.
While living in the cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I used to wander into the forest and visualize various characters in particular locations dedicated to each, having conversations with them to flesh out who they were. It was a form of intentional, self-induced semi-hallucination, powerful enough that occasionally a character would “say” something that would surprise me! This was a technique for discovering each character’s own authenticity rather than populating my world with contrived characters with less of a life of their own.
I believe it was also while I was in New Mexico that I saw (on video tape borrowed from the Taos library, since I had no television reception in my cabin) a National Geographic special on the rain forest canopy ecosystem, the imagery of which inspired the imagery of Algonion’s largely airborne trek through Lokewood in search of the Loci imps, one of my descriptively favorite passages.
Also while in New Mexico, I further developed my sociological paradigm, focusing it more on Richard Dawkins’ “Meme Theory,” which provided a lynchpin to the synthesis I had been developing. This has since found its way into the novel, particularly in the Kindle e-book version, in my newly rewritten description of the Vaznallam mindscape and the fractal geometry of their mental representation of the Sadache cognitive landscape, which is the imagery presented in a series of expository essays I’ve written on the fractal geometry and evolutionary ecology of our shared human cognitive landscape (and, along with it, our social institutional and technological landscape).
In December of 1999, I set out for Mexico to find a spot in which to continue to work on the novel, living modestly off investments, which were doing well at the time. I ended up in Mazatlan, where I developed the routine of waking up before dawn to write from my balcony, watching the morning light spread over the city and the bay while I was writing. I stayed in Mazatlan for over two years, taking several car trips to various regions of Mexico while there, all of which also contributed something to the imagery of the novel. During that time I got married and toward the end of my time in Mazatlan finished the current hard copy version of the novel and began seeking unsuccessfully to publish it.
We moved up to the Denver area in the summer of 2002 (and had our wonderful daughter, Scheherazade, in 2003), and I embarked on a combination of teaching, law school, a run for the state legislature, public policy research and analysis, and a variety of civic engagement, not touching the novel other than to self-publish it in 2005. The combination of my failure to do anything to market the novel and my realization that I had not, in fact, finished refining it prior to publishing it, that I had not ironed out all of the rough spots, that I had not perfected my own vision of what the novel should be, culminated in my decision in the summer of 2013 to do one more set of revisions and refinements, and to republish it as an e-book.
The ebook version of the novel is now available, via the links provided at the top and bottom of this narrative.
(This essay is an elaboration of Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).
Imagine that I offered each person in a group the following deal: You can agree to give me $30, and in return I’ll give $10 to each and every person in the group, including you. I’ll give the $10 to everyone, whether they paid $30 or not, for each person that does pay $30.
Each person is faced with an offer to pay $30 dollars in return for, to him or her individually, $10, a bad deal for that individual (a loss of $20). But since everyone else in the group also each gets $10, for any group with a membership of more than three people, it is a bigger return to the group than cost to the group. If there are 10 people in the group, and everyone makes the deal, they each pay $30 and each get $100 in return, for a net gain of $70. However, if one doesn’t pay, he or she gets $90 outright (9 people taking the deal times $10 to each person in the group) while each of the others only get a net gain of $60 ($90 minus the $30 paid in). The individual incentive is not to pay in, even though everyone is better off the more people who do, with everyone coming out ahead if 3 or more people pay in. Those who don’t pay in, however, always do better than those who do (the “free rider problem”).
This dynamic is a major underlying force in the generation of social institutions, which to a large degree exist to overcome this collective action problem. There are many scenarios woven throughout our collective existence in which people benefit from some form of cooperation (even those forms that establish the rules for competition, such as the enforcement of property rights in service to the functioning of markets), but are tempted by individual incentives to cheat or fail to act cooperatively. Our laws, our contracts, our governments, our social norms, our ideologies, all are laden with mechanisms that have evolved with the purpose of creating mutual commitment mechanisms, enforced either externally by social institutions or internally to one’s own psychological make-up. Combined, they form social institutional technologies which are robust sets of memes self-replicating and spreading throughout our shared cognitive landscape (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
It has always been a dynamic at the heart of intertribal and international relations, in which sovereign societies must strategically interact in a world with limited international legal enforcement mechanisms. With increasing political, economic and cultural globalization, and information, communication and transportation technologies make the world ever smaller and more tightly integrated, examining these dynamics is one critical component of understanding the shared geopolitical landscape in which we live.
“The War of the Woods”:
Imagine that long ago, two countries, Apestonia and Pulgalandia, had a forest on their border. Both countries desperately needed the wood in the forest, because it was both their primary building material and their fuel. Each country was faced with the choice of either dividing the forest evenly, or attacking the other and trying to get more of the forest for themself.
There are 1000 acres of forest between the two countries. If the two countries agree to draw their border right through the middle of it, they can each have 500 acres of forest, which they both desperately need.
But if one attacks quickly while the other one is planning on sharing the forest evenly (and so isn’t prepared for war), the one that attacks will capture 700 acres of the forest, 300 acres will be burnt or destroyed during the fighting, and the other will get zero acres. Since they are militarily evenly matched, if they both attack each other at the same time, 400 acres of forest will be destroyed in the fighting, and they’ll each end up with 300 acres of forest.
Here’s a table that summarizes these choices and outcomes:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate(attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 500 Acres Apestonia: 0 Acres
Pulgalandia: 700 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres
Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 300 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres
Each country faces the following logic: “We don’t know what the other country will do. If they decide to cooperate (not attack first), we will get 500 acres if we also cooperate, but 700 acres if we don’t (if we attack unprovoked). Therefore, if they cooperate, we are better off not cooperating (attacking). If they decide not to cooperate (to attack), then we will get zero acres if we cooperate (don’t attack), but 300 acres if we don’t (if we attack). Therefore, no matter what the other country does, we are better off attacking.”
However, if both countries follow that logic, they each end up with 300 acres, though if they had cooperated and split the forest, they would have each ended up with 500 acres. So, while each country has an incentive to attack, if they can find a way to commit one another to cooperation, they both benefit.
So, even though they have a conflict over the forest, they have a shared interest in finding a way to commit one another to cooperating for mutual benefit. This is often the case, with war being costly in blood and treasure, and peaceful coexistence (and even mutually beneficial exchange) being far more conducive to general prosperity.
Historically, real tribes and countries have faced this challenge. Some have said, “Okay, let’s agree to cooperate, and to make sure no one cheats, we’ll exchange hostages.” And then each country would send an important member of their own society (often the ruler’s daughter to be raised by the other ruler as his or her own) to go live with the other society, so that if either cheats, that hostage can be killed in retaliation. Later, countries sent the children of royalty to marry the children of royalty in other countries, sort of as “permanent hostages,” but also to bind the countries together so that they can act more cooperatively.
In the modern world, we’ve developed a much more elaborate system of international diplomacy, with embassies in each other’s countries, and treaties, and international organizations (like the United Nations). The European Union, whose roots go back to post-WWII efforts to create economic ties that would diminish the chances of resumed warfare, is perhaps the most advanced example of emerging international political economic consolidation
Not just internationally, but within nations, overcoming this collective action problem is a big part of why we’ve created many of the social institutions we’ve created. Our Constitution, our laws, even our religions, have developed in many ways to help make it easier for people to commit one another to mutually beneficial actions even when they have individual incentives to cheat or act in non-cooperative ways.
With modern technologies, modern weapons (such as nuclear weapons), modern transportation and communication technologies, an increasingly global economy, increasingly global environmental and natural resource issues, all nations in the world face many collective action problems. Our increasing political globalization is a complex tapestry of conflict and cooperation woven within this underlying logic.
So far, we’ve assumed that the countries were equally matched, and looked at the cost-benefit analysis of each when considering whether to attack the other or to live in peace. But what if they weren’t evenly matched? What if one was militarily stronger than the other? How would that change things?
If Apestonia were more powerful than Pulgalandia, then Apestonia would capture more forest than Pulgalandia would if the two went to war. If Apestonia were to attack first, perhaps it would capture the whole forest against the weaker Pulgalandia, losing only a small portion (let’s say a tenth) in battle. This outcome can be seen in the lower-left square of the two-by-two table, in which Apestonia attacks first and captures 900 acres, while Pulgalandia ends up with zero.
Conversely, if Pulgalandia attacks first, it will gain the advantage of surprise, but will still be facing a superior force, and might manage to capture and control 300 acres against Apestonia’s 500, 200 being lost to the destruction of war. This outcome is summarized in the upper-right square.Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 900 Acres
Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 600 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres
If they both attack each other at the same time, more forest will be lost to the destruction of battle, and neither will have the benefit of surprise, but Apestonia will still come out ahead. This is reflected in the lower-right square.
Because of the difference in power, when they negotiate a peace in which neither attacks, Apestonia can demand more of the forest than Pulgalandia. This is reflected in the upper-left square.
The logic that the two countries face is still similar to the logic that they faced when equally powerful. Neither knows what the other will do. Apestonia says to itself, “If Pulgalandia cooperates (doesn’t attack), we can get 800 acres for also cooperating (not attacking), or 900 acres for attacking. If Pulgalandia doesn’t attack, we are better off attacking. If Pulgalandia does attack, we can get 500 acres for not attacking first (only reacting to their attack), and 600 for attacking first, so, again, we are better off attacking. No matter what Pulgalandia does, we’re better off attacking.
Similarly, Pulgalandia is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia do. They say to themselves, “If Apestonia doesn’t attack first, we get 200 acres for also not attacking, but 300 for attacking, and if Apestonia does attack first, we get zero acres for not having attacked at the same time but 100 acres for having attacked at the same time. Either way, we’re better off attacking.”
But they both know this, and both know that they’d be better off not attacking one another. So, just as before, they need to invest in some way of committing one another to cooperation.
But the pay-offs can look different as well. It may be that, while the weaker Pulgalandia has incentives to attack no matter what the stronger Apestonia does, Apestonia gets a stronger benefit from cooperation. In the chart below, Pulgalandia still is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia does, and Apestonia, knowing that, knows it has to attack to get 550 rather than 500 acres. This is reflected in the table below:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres
But the most Pulgalandia can possibly get is 250 acres, if they attack before Apestonia does. Apestonia can just say, “look, we’ll give you 300 acres, 50 more than you can possibly get by attacking us. We’ll keep 700, which is more than we can get in any other way. If you attack, even while we are planning on cooperating with you, you lose 50 acres. You have no reason to attack, and we’re both better off than we can otherwise be.”
This is reflected in the table below, in which neither country has any incentive to do anything other than cooperate:Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres
This is an illustration of how power is exercised among nations (or factions within a nation), even without having to exert any military force at all to do it. Nations know their relative power to one another, and when they negotiate treaties and deals they negotiate agreements that favor the more powerful. When the United States was formed, the more powerful (populous) states made sure that their power was reflected in the new government (by having representatives in Congress proportional to their population). When the United Nations charter was drafted, the most powerful nations insisted on forming a “security council,” that had far more power over the organization than other nations did.
Weak nations sometimes have the power of threatening to create problems for stronger nations, and thus get concessions to keep them calm. But nations also sometimes have leaders or governments that cease to act rationally, like the current government of North Korea seems to not be acting rationally.
Of course, if, in the end, the United States, worried about an irrational nuclear armed North Korea, gives them large amounts of aid to keep them from causing problems, then it will have turned out that North Korea’s “craziness” was pretty smart after all…. Strategies that “trump” rational considerations can be very rational strategies, including various ways of binding oneself to a limited range of options in order to increase one’s own bargaining power, or behaving in ways which make an opponent question one’s rationality in order to make them more accommodating for fear of erratic responses.
The scenarios presented above are highly simplified, leaving out many factors, such as uncertainty (real actors in such situations don’t know what the exact outcomes of various combinations of choices will be), more complexity in available options (not just binary choices), more interacting actors (not just two), more conflated issues being bargained over (not just a single resource), more costs and benefits to be considered (not just the amount of that single resource gained or lost), factional conflict across levels (different interest groups and political parties vying for different outcomes due to differing material interests and political ideological orientations), less centralized decision-making (not a single ruler making unlimited autocratic decisions, but rather in various ways collective decision-making processes impinging on the negotiations between actors constituted in that way), and various intrusions of emotional and irrational considerations, that even rational actors have to take into account.
But the complexity of the real world does not mean that abstraction from it is not a helpful tool in understanding underlying dynamics. Rather, it is a way of isolating individual dimensions of those underlying dynamics, gradually adding in enough of the complexity to begin to capture a deeper and subtler understanding of how our social institutional landscape really functions.
As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.
As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.
But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)
So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?
Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”
To explore that ”lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.
What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).
But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.
What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.
Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.
What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.
In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”
But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.
Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?
This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?
Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.
Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.
If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct ”echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?
Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.
We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.
So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.