A Secular Path to God
In the spirit of Young Thug: fuck all that, let’s get to it.
There is one belief upon which all of this is built. If this turns out to be false, then all of it is false. My assumption is that any complex phenomenon, whether it’s consciousness, the market, society, or life, can generally be described as an emergent property.
What is an emergent property? An emergent property is the result of many things interacting, when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The classic example is an ant hill. Individual ants are really too stupid to build anything; they barely understand where they are or what they’re doing at any particular time. But, get a colony together, guided by pheromones, and they can build spectacular structures, wage war, loot picnics. You’d never be able to predict these things by taking an individual ant and observing how it behaves on its own. The colony is a completely separate thing from the ant. It’s an emergent property of a specific arrangement of individual ants: the ways they interact with each other and the networks they form.
I take it for granted that consciousness is the exemplar of emergent properties. To our current understanding, the brain is basically a meat computer, built on networks of neurons, action potentials, glial cells, and other structures. It doesn’t appear to have a central source. Phineas Gage had a tamping iron shot through his skull and lost much of his left frontal lobe, yet years later he was able to find work as a long-distance stagecoach driver. There’s still much we don’t know about the brain, but my intuition is that it’s essentially rhizomatic, meaning there is no one piece that is essential to its function. Rather, it is the connections themselves that make it work. As long as there are enough pathways to build upon, it seems as if the network is able to compensate and take on the functions of any section that is destroyed. This is to say nothing of the rest of the body or even factors outside the body and their role in our experience of consciousness.
It’s simple to go from here to God. Not a specific god mind you, rather the general concept of a higher being, power, or consciousness. After all, if the most sublime phenomenon we know, consciousness, merely arises from a network of insentient cells, which themselves originate from organizations of indifferent particles, who’s to say there aren’t even more incredible emergent properties? Could we not be neurons in a greater mind? As we struggle to uncover the fundamental properties of our universe, why wouldn’t we expect there to be emergent properties far beyond our grasp? We do not even understand the ants yet: When will we begin to see the ant hill?
We have no reason to believe the ant has any real comprehension of the ant hill. Rather, it should be impossible for the ant with its puny mind to be able to understand the ant colony at all. After all, we cannot understand the colony from the perspective of an individual ant. To understand the colony, we must take all of the ants and their environment and watch as their networks and relationships in context unfold. That is to say, the ant colony must somehow simulate itself.
This is where we run into a paradox. As soon as you build a simulation of your own environment, that simulation becomes part of the environment. So, you have to simulate the simulation within the simulation, and then you have to simulate the simulation of the simulation in the simulation, and this goes on forever.
This is not a problem with technology: it cuts to the bone of mathematics. Early set theory was wracked with problems like Russell’s paradox (who shaves the barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves?) and the Burali-Forti paradox (the set of all ordinal numbers necessitates an ordinal bigger than the biggest ordinal). This lead to restrictions like the Axiom of Foundation and Stratified Comprehension that prevent sets from containing themselves.
Not only is it possible there is a “consciousness” among us to whom we are like ants, it may not even be possible to prove it exists. We know through Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems that some statements are unprovable, including those relating to the physical world. So far we have not even begun to discover the ground-level principles we can’t prove. The higher level phenomenon will have to come along much later. We are at a loss for what we do not know and what we cannot know.
This is to say that it’s impossible for the universe to fully understand itself. As such, we will always have some room for intuition and speculation, as there is in mathematics. My intuition is that there are higher-level mechanisms, bizarre super-organisms that can be felt in our everyday lives and “understood” at a gut level, even if they completely escape formal capture.
Science is inherently conservative, which is why it works. It also has very little to say about the edges of our understanding. A sense of spirituality can be helpful to people, and may actually grasp at real phenomena we are currently or even permanently incapable of understanding with science. This does not excuse everything. For example, we now know that traditional medicine points at something real, namely the placebo effect. However, over-identification with traditional medicine can be toxic and harmful when it leads to people abstaining from necessary treatment or killing endangered species. The challenge is to form an effective synthesis of what we know rationally and feel intuitively.
I’m partial to the concept of a world spirit. By world, I don’t necessary mean the universe as a whole, but rather the subset relevant to humanity or even the subset relevant to specific person. Because so much is connected, your own influence is probably much more stupendously far-reaching than you think. By spirit, I’m of course referring to the mysterious properties that may emerge from a world network.
One example of this is multiple discovery, the hypothesis that most scientific breakthroughs are made more or less independently and simultaneously by multiple researchers. Leibniz and Newton famously developed calculus around the same time, Elisha Gray and Alexander Bell filed for telephone patents within two hours of each other, and at least three teams in different countries with different approaches developed the “Higgs” Field within a few months of each other. In my personal life, I tend to think that if I’m having a particular thought or discussion then there must be others going through the same thing all over the world. It’s comforting to think that the weight of the world does not rest on my shoulders, and that my humble participation in the world historical process will lead to ideas and action spreading in due course.
Another example is social media. A lot of people are paranoid that their phones are listening to them. They’ll talk about something in real life, only to see an ad for it when they look up something on Google later. I’ve known computer scientists who doubt this, but naturally we can’t know these things for certain. Recently, my friend sent me an article about college debt, only for Youtube to immediately recommend a video from MIT called “Education: The Man Made Trap.”
I doubt YouTube and Facebook really have that seamless of data transference. If I were being traditionally rational and skeptical, I’d chock it all up to the frequency illusion: you notice things more after they’ve been explicitly mentioned. This doesn’t feel satisfactory for me. I speculate that in part, this effect emerges from a convergence on topics, sentiments, and ideas arising from a mixture of historical-social processes, algorithms, and the interconnectedness of human networks. I imagine this always occurred to a certain aspect, but it’s massively amplified by the internet. TikTok, although I don’t use it myself, is probably the most spectacular instance of this, with its stew of instantaneously transmitted human culture.
I’m interested in any examples you all come up with of emergent properties. On the strict side, I’ve developed an approach to what I hope is a well-reasoned agnosticism. On the freer side, perhaps I’ve revealed a sort of enlightened pantheism within myself. Either way, what I’ve hoped to do is take a number of thoughts I’ve had floating around for some years now and put it to paper in a way people can understand. I’d like to hear what you all think of this and inspire some thoughtful discussion.