We Made It All Up

God exists the way the USA and France and Pakistan exist – the way the Yankees and Lakers and Manchester United exist… the way Apple and Tesla and… well, you get the point.

Nations, sports teams, corporations – any group, class, organization you can think of – all of them exist because we think they do. They aren’t out there in the cosmos waiting for us to recognize their existence. We believe them into existence.

A bunch of guys in powder wigs decide they should have a new country, and they all buy into the idea. They believe it into existence. They write a Declaration of what they have in mind and they all sign it. They follow it with a war, then they write a Constitution, elect a first President and Congress…. 

That’s how institutions come into existence. Somebody gets an idea, a bunch of other somebodies get on board with it, and then they turn their idea into an institution. They give it a legal structure, adopt mission statements and strategic plans, somebody designs a flag for it, somebody else designs and sews uniforms, street vendors start selling swag with its colors, it prints and spends money, takes out loans and buys real estate and puts up buildings, sells things and stages events.… The psychological term for all that is emergence — the invisible idea everybody believes in takes on visible structure — it emerges into existence, becomes a shared reality. You can see, hear, taste. and touch it. It’s a part of things. Before long, it’s been around forever.

All thanks to the human ability to believe in an idea until it becomes a communal reality.

Patriotism and fandom and brand loyalty and religious devotion aren’t out there existing apart from anybody’s opinion on the matter, keeping track of who believes in them and who doesn’t and making a to-be-punished list of people who don’t. They only come into being because of the belief, intention, and follow-through of their believers. Take away belief and emergence and you don’t have a country or a team or a whatever – all you’ve got is a dreamer or a bunch of dreamers making things up that never take shape, never emerge, never become reality.

All you’ve got is a great concept that never gets produced.

Your people and my people never get together.

But keep in touch. We can do lunch.

To my new atheist way of thinking, belief plus emergence is how God, the Bible, Christianity, and all the rest of the God religions came to be.

God emerged into existence.

That’s heresy of course. “Heresy” is what happens when unbelievers think. Unbelievers can’t help but be heretics. If they were believers, their brains wouldn’t process heretical thoughts. But since they’re not, heresy comes naturally – it’s the standard fare, just another day at the office. They root for the Astros instead of the Cubs. They kneel for the National Anthem. They think high school kids shouldn’t have the “freedom” to open carry at school. And on it goes. Heretics all – because they don’t believe.

Believers, on the other hand, can’t be heretics. Belief won’t let them. Belief keeps its onward Christian soldiers marching smartly off to war. There’s no breaking ranks in believing. Heresy requires thinking outside the lines of belief. Galileo had to turn himself in to Rome because there’s no way a believer could think the earth goes around the sun. The Bible has it the other way around—everybody can see that. You can’t go your own way and be a believer at the same time. No getting out of line.

God can’t be a heretic either. God knows who he is, and the idea that he could have doubts about himself is ludicrous. True, some of the stuff God says and does and believes about himself is pretty out there, but God is entitled to be as out there as He wants. He’s God, after all. We believe God into an indescribably unattainable level of existence where all normal rules of behavior are off – including when God does things that would be criminal if we were talking about you and me. God can be as cruel and brutal, contradictory and arbitrary as he wants. God’s got to be tough enough to keep order – just think what humans would do if he let them. If sometimes what he does stretches the bounds of our theology, well, so be it. Besides, it’s useful to let God get away with stuff. Like war. The things that happen in war are crimes. But since God is okay with war – the Bible says his name is “Man of War” – then we can be Men of War as well. Thus the crimes of war are legalized.

How convenient.

When God emerged, we believed him out as far awa y from us as we could– we put him in a dwelling place of his own called Heaven – somewhere way out there beyond the edges of the universe. We decree that He’s sacred and we’re profane. He’s immortal, invisible, God only wise — omnipotent, omniscient, almighty — and we’re none of the above. He’s insanely, incomprehensibly rich and powerful, and he lives forever. We have this funny saying about people being “richer than God” but of course we don’t really mean it. Rich compared to God? Not a chance. Even the nations are a drop in the bucket compared to Him.

We think of God that way because we need God to be that big, that incomprehensible, that unapproachable. We need God’s presence to be so holy and powerful and scary that we have to tie a rope around the priest’s ankle so we can drag him out if he missteps while he’s inside the Holy of Holies and God can’t help himself and just lashes out and wastes him. We need God to dwell in unapproachable light, where there is no shadow or turning, to be right and true and just beyond reproach, no matter how abusive and sadistic and criminal he is in his agitated moments. God is the master of all that is mysterious, all the things that bug us, everything we can’t and never will figure out. God is the monarch of life and death, and all things comprehensible and not. We need to give him lots of space.

So of course we’re not going to venture that we just made the whole thing up – that we made God up. Mess with a God like that? Are you kidding?

But then we stop believing and now the unthinkable becomes possible. We become instant heretics. To our unbelieving way of thinking, the whole emerged reality of God and his religions is free to come a-tumbling down. We bring it down when we stop believing. It all burns up, crashes into the sea, vaporizes. Talk about special effects.

And that horrible God? We can be rid of him, too.

Just like that.

The brains of the human species hold onto beliefs for a long time – centuries and millennia, eras and eons – transferring belief from one generation of brains to the next generation of brains, far beyond the Biblical seventh generation. Thus God lives forever and his religions endure and outlast each faithful generation.

Stop believing, and it all ends.

God ends.

Imagine that kind of world of you can. You probably can’t. You might not want to. You’d have to be a nonbeliever to do it.

“I made it all up” sends everything we’ve ever known about God and his heaven and his creation whirling around the room like a balloon off its tether. Suddenly all those people, all that worship, all those holy lands and holy places, all that cosmology… all of it scattered, broken, discarded, despised, rejected. We created it all by belief. We destroyed it all by unbelief.

These kinds of thoughts are so radical, so extreme, so distant, so… wrong, just plain wrong… that our brains don’t want to go there. But they can, and will, and do…

If we stop believing.

I know, because it happened to me. Going from being a Christian to being a heretic was a turbulent flight for a long time. But then the air got smoother. I got used to my new apostasy. Life without my prior sense of always being under the thumb, under scrutiny, always having to figure it out, reconcile all the contradictions, solve all the conundrums, all that scrambling to explain and justify God… all of it faded away. God vanished – and when He did, the tempest, tumult, and trouble that were always required of believing in God ended. My new ways of thinking weren’t nearly so turbulent. I could just… well, sort of… think.

Imagine that.

Emergence

 

murmuration

One fine afternoon autumn day I watched transfixed as a gigantic flock of migratory birds swarmed over the woods across the street. I was watching a “complex, self-organizing system” in action — specifically, a “murmuration” of birds, which is created by “swarm behavior,” which in turn falls in the category of emergence.

Emergence explains how the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The term is widely used — in systems theory, philosophy. psychology, chemistry, biology, neurobiology, machine learning — and for purposes of this blog, it also applies to cultural belief systems and the social institutions they generate.

Consider any culture you like — a team, club, company, profession, investor group, religious gathering, political party…. As we’ve seen previously in this series, the group’s cultural sense of reality is patterned in each individual member’s neural wiring and cellular makeup. But no one member can hold it all, and different members have varying affinity for different aspects of the culture. As a result, each member takes what the others bring “on faith”:  the group believes in its communal beliefs. This faith facilitates the emergence of a cohesive, dynamic cultural body that takes on a life of its own, expressed through its institutions. .

That’s emergence.

To get a further sense of how this works, see this TED Talk that uses complex systems theory to look at how the structure of the financial industry (a transnational cultural body) helped to bring about the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Systems theorist James B. Glattfelder[1] lays out a couple key features of self-organizing systems:

“It turns out that what looks like complex behavior from the outside is actually the result of a few simple rules of interaction. This means you can forget about the equations and just start to understand the system by looking at the interactions.

“And it gets even better, because most complex systems have this amazing property called emergence. This means that the system as a whole suddenly starts to show a behavior which cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the components. The whole is literally more than the sum of its parts.”

In the end, he says, there’s an innate simplicity to it all — “an emergent property which depends on the rules of interaction in the system. We could easily reproduce [it] with a few simple rules.”[2] He compares this outcome to the inevitable polarized logjams we get from clashing cultural ideologies:

 “I really hope that this complexity perspective allows for some common ground to be found. It would be really great if it has the power to help end the gridlock created by conflicting ideas, which appears to be paralyzing our globalized world.  Ideas relating to finance, economics, politics, society, are very often tainted by people’s personal ideologies.  Reality is so complex, we need to move away from dogma.”

Trouble is, we seem to be predisposed toward ideological gridlock and dogma. Even if we’ve never heard of emergence, we have a kind of backdoor awareness of it — that there are meta-influences affecting our lives — but we’re inclined to locate their source “out there,” instead of in our bodily selves. “Out there” is where the Big Ideas live, formulated by transcendent realities and personalities — God, gods, Fate, Destiny, Natural Law, etc. — that sometimes enter our lesser existence to reveal their take on how things work. Trouble is, they have super-intelligence while we have only a lesser version, so once we receive their revelations, we codify them into vast bodies of collected wisdom and knowledge, which we then turn over to our sacred and secular  cultural institutions to administer. We and our cultures aren’t perfect like they are, but we do our best to live up to their high standards.

We do all this because, as biocentrism champion Robert Lanza has said, most of us have trouble wrapping our heads around the notion that

“Everything we see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in our head. We are not just objects embedded in some external matrix ticking away ‘out there.’”[3]

In our defense, the kind of systems analysis that James Glattfelder uses in his TED talk requires a lot of machine super-intelligence and brute data-crunching power that the human brain lacks. We’re analog and organic, not digital, and we use our limited outlook to perpetuate more polarization, ideological gridlock. and dogma. Culture may be emergent, but when it emerges, it walks right into a never-ending committee meeting  debating whether it has a place on the agenda..

Next time, we’ll look at what happens when emergent cultures clash.

[1] James B. Glattfelder holds a Ph.D. in complex systems from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He began as a physicist, became a researcher at a Swiss hedge fund. and now does quantitative research at Olsen Ltd in Zurich, a foreign exchange investment manager.

[2] Here’s a YouTube explanation of the three simple rules that explain the murmuration I watched that day.

[3] From this article in Aeon Magazine.