Why do The Gods only Talk to Some of Us?

That’s me in the little blue boat… 2019

One of the things that has always bothered me about any developmental theory is that inevitably, it gets coopted by the status-conscious as a way of justifying their ostensible superiority. What happens next is an outflowing of the usual bile from those claiming the mantle of enlightenment — “those people” don’t love, they don’t care, or have feelings. And THEN the next action, at times in history, has been to kill them. Any theory of the übermensch has the dark problem of highlighting human superiority turning into a tool for psychopaths. It’s no surprise to me that Crazy Uncle Friedrich (Nietzsche) would wax operatically about the Spartans, whom I’ve written about before. It makes my mind reel to think people would wax heroic about a nation based on pederasty. Sorry.

I’ve told amalgamated friend Hanzi Freinacht that what we need to do is move to a stage-based theory that embodies instead of a hierarchy of status, a hierarchy of responsibility. If you’re more enlightened, well, that’s all well and good. Now here’s a big, old serving of duty for fixing what ails the world.

The Zen Buddhist monks got all these concepts in spades. One of my favorite stories, from Paul Reps’ curated 101 Zen Stories is below, that captures this sentiment.

Soldiers of Humanity

Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan’s temple.

Gasan told his cook: “Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.”

This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?”

Gasan answered sternly: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”

The bottom line of all this is that all people (at least those without broken brain circuits) feel things like love and attachment, or sorrow in loss of love. It is unfair to say that a poor person, or a person from a different culture, doesn’t feel some version of love. But the way, and the triggers for that emotion, naturally vary wildly dependent on that person’s background culture, as well as stage of development. I remember reading an account of the Coptic Christian massacre by Daesh/Islamic State in 2015, where IS killed 21 construction workers in the name of revenge for an alleged failed conversion of a Copt woman to Islam. A reporter had traveled to the town in Egypt, where many of the workers were from. Expecting to find a devastated community, instead they found families honored by their sons’ martyred sacrifice. So there is indeed range in human response — but it’s important to understand that the joy and pride were a response to their love. Not an abnegation of it.

Another great example I’ve used to build my empathy, that maps really well to the development of humanity, is understanding the characters in the documentary about the construction and filling behind the Three Gorges Dam — Up the Yangtze , by director Yung Chung. Chung covers the plight of the poorest of the poor — a farmer and his wife living along the banks of the river, and soon to be displaced by the rising flood waters backing up behind the dam. Their material condition is extremely poor — you have to watch the documentary to appreciate it, and I was raised in the hills of Appalachia. Yet there is an obvious bond between the old farmer and his wife. I find myself working to understand their bond — what constitutes, to the wife, the idea that she married well, and as such, serves as a devoted partner to her husband. Instead of doubting that those different from us feel emotion, it’s a useful point of growth.

But back to the main question. If we’re fundamentally all the same, yet different through some lens of personal development, why do the gods only talk to some of us? They certainly don’t talk to me. Is there an evolutionary reason that we can understand why the gods don’t talk to me, but do talk to others, that’s explainable in the four dimensions we have in the here and now?

With a tip of the hat to Carlos Perez, who writes extensively on AI, and recently covered my concept of Structural Memetics as a route toward understanding AI development, I’m obviously not the first person to consider this question. What I’m going to discuss is Julian Jayne’s Theory of the Bicameral Mind. Written in 1978, Jaynes argued that consciousness is a learned behavior, and in the long context of human history, relatively recent. Ulysses of the Odyssey really WAS told what to do by the gods — in particular, the goddess Athena, who was said to resemble him the most in that she was also the goddess prone to tricks.

We both know tricks, since you are by far the best among all men in counsel and tales, but I among all the Gods have renown for wit (metis) and tricks.1

Ulysses is not the only mythic, or semi-mythic figure trotted out with a thin version of a conscience. He did end up in Dante’s lowest level of the Inferno for a reason. For those of Abrahamic religious persuasion, it’s worthwhile to note that Abraham himself was told to sacrifice his oldest son, Isaac. He was just about to do it until Yahweh issued a stay of execution. In lots of places in the Bible, especially when the Hebrew pastoralists were cruising around in the wilderness, Yahweh does some serious talking. As well as producing some artifacts that have large-scale consequences, like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It is both metaphorically, and oddly enough, v-Memetically fitting that in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, after the Nazis are melted by opening the Ark of the Covenant, attempting to access magic they had no deeper birthright to, the whole Ark is then buried deep in a bureaucratic nightmare of government storehouse. The Legalistic v-Meme can even suffocate the power of Magical Divine Authority.

But back to development. Unlike others, like Kegan and Piaget, I’ve posited two axes for increase of neural complexity — either complicatedness/sophistication, and complexity/evolution.

And here’s the key. In order to evolve, one must develop enough agency through self-examination and development of empathy to self-separate from other’s imposed reality. That means you recognize that other’s interpretations of reality is outside your noggin.

And you then cross-reference your own neural inputs and sensations through your experiences to spin all those parts through a reflecting hippocampus to create autobiographical narratives. That little hippocampus spinning wheel in your limbic system seems to be key in creating those narratives that are assembled from lots of different parts floating around our brain — but most importantly, in your prefrontal cortex (PFC). And certainly one of the threads that gets woven into all this, IF you have this self-separation from other’s emotional reality, is the idea that you have a unique voice in all this — that your free will and agency actually matters, at least a little bit.

So as you go through life, this grounding wire through your PFC feeds important information back into your system as far as both paying attention to your world, as well as the people in your world, realizing they have an important role in creating your own narratives. And as you add people to your world, your grounding feed grows, and grows — through developed empathy.

But what happens if you don’t have that grounding wire through other people, and your PFC? What happens if you don’t have that large network of others’ realizations, as well as a conscience and the time to know yourself?

It IS possible that your brain might get frozen in time, and you just stop growing. But now it’s informative to return to the notion of how other emotions might grow in lieu of an experientially-based relationship. Just like the farmer’s wife, other modes of developed attachment from cultural and other symbolic vocabularies might reinforce your experience. In short, that little voice in your head just might be your God talking to you. With some serious external, cultural reinforcement — like sacrificing your favorite pet goat.

But here’s the key thought. That grounding wire, instead of reaching out into a data-driven world, instead remains locked, self-referentially, through your limbic system. It keeps feeding back the same beliefs over and over into your stories, reinforcing whatever fixed mental models you have. No wonder its turtles all the way down. All you’ve got are those damn turtles.

And as you turn more and more cycles in the old CPU, those thoughts become part of the larger, threaded narrative of your life. And your view of the world becomes a more magical place. Coherence is generated through more and more complicated connections, flowing from the same iconic symbol set. Ravens show up and get hooked to everything. Or owls. Or crosses.

What’s interesting is that the larger irrational perspective might have, historically, fueled innovation and global change, before we were all actually connected with any real information. All you have to do is read a couple of conquistadors’ stories, and you might just start believing that God wanted you to show up on Atahualpa’s (the Incan leader at the time of collapse) doorstep after a major military defeat. Stranger things have been perceived.

And now we can loop back around to some things I’ve said about how social structures low on the empathy scale also are pretty poor in metacognition as well. You don’t get to be a leader of the faith by saying “I don’t know.”

But all of it is one crazy way to innovate — by sailing off across the ocean convinced everything’s just going to be alright. A little blind faith might not be a bad strategy for the holiday football pool – or sailing to the New World in 1492. But it’s a concept worth reconsidering and re-evaluating when it comes to tipping points for global warming.

For me personally, while I can appreciate, and sort of embrace Jayne’s bicameral brain, I’m still not going tell you the Universe has any particular plan for me. There’s been no god of any sort talking to me. I’ve always figured I’ve gotten this far by saying “I don’t know.” That metacognitive survival strategy has worked pretty well up to this point.

What’s the takeaway? At some level, other people in our life help figure out which pathway we’re going to use. If they’re all like us, with the same belief sets and mental models, all we need is that warm fuzzy feeling to feel safe, and our PFC remains relatively dormant. The world doesn’t change much, there isn’t much reckoning for getting stuck, and we also get to tell people that over time, we’re closer to whatever god we’re granted by our church, our family, or NASCAR racing team. And the devil literally take the hindmost if someone attempts to change our mind. A self-referential limbic loop makes that basically impossible, though our thinking will lead to a more sophisticated view of our deity. It becomes our touchstone.

But if folks are different, we have to start paying attention — with cognitive empathy. Which then rakes our PFC into the brouhaha, which gets us wondering, maybe a little, whether we heard them right, or something, so we can connect to them. And so, as we march through our lives, building both consciousness, an independent conscience, and a larger, diverse social network, our PFC gets one helluva workout. And then it has to reckon with all the empty space in there. Which leads to wisdom.

As we relate, so we think. Who woulda thunk?

18 thoughts on “Why do The Gods only Talk to Some of Us?

  1. “a stage-based theory that embodies instead of a hierarchy of status, a hierarchy of responsibility. If you’re more enlightened, well, that’s all well and good. Now here’s a big, old serving of duty for fixing what ails the world.”

    Sounds a bit like noblesse oblige. Feudalism had a system of obligations and expectations that tied together the members of society through predetermined and constrained social roles.

    Some of the American founders who actually were aristocrats came up with the notion of an enlightened aristocracy, as a new justification for their unequal wealth and power in the supposedly free society that had been created. That sense of responsibility was carried forward by some of the ruling elite through the two Roosevelt presidents, two paternalistic patriarchs born into wealth.

    It’s hard to know what that would mean these days. Few of the elite seem bothered about rationalizing why they should be in control of society and receive its benefits. Social Darwinism (by way of capitalist realism) has become the more common view, even among many of the liberal elite. They are simply the elite because they were born better than everyone else and/or because they were willing and able to be more ruthless — survival of the fittest, one way or another.

    “With a tip of the hat to Carlos Perez, who writes extensively on AI, and recently covered my concept of Structural Memetics as a route toward understanding AI development, I’m obviously not the first person to consider this question. What I’m going to discuss is Julian Jayne’s Theory of the Bicameral Mind.”

    I noticed that Perez discusses his own theory of multiple selves and then briefly mentions Jaynes at the end.

    In Western thought, David Hume was the first to articulate the bundle theory of mind/ego, but he likely learned of this from the Buddhist understanding brought back by missionaries to the East. Jaynes came about this from another angle, in going from behaviorism to philology, which is how he ended up in the territory of linguistic relativity without realizing it (he apparently never studied or knew about linguistic relativity, the kissing cousin of philology).

    In The Meme Machine (with a foreword by Richard Dawkins), Susan Blackmore discusses Hume’s bundle theory. And in another book, Consciousness: An Introduction (co-authored with Emily T. Troscianko), she discusses Jaynes’ bicameral mind. She includes Jayne’s book as one of her top recommendations:
    https://fivebooks.com/best-books/consciousness-susan-blackmore/

    “For me personally, while I can appreciate, and sort of embrace Jayne’s bicameral brain, I’m still not going tell you the Universe has any particular plan for me. There’s been no god of any sort talking to me. I’ve always figured I’ve gotten this far by saying “I don’t know.” That metacognitive survival strategy has worked pretty well up to this point.”

    But maybe all the voices in our mind are simply the old gods hidden under new guise. We aren’t the storyteller for we are the stories told. The ultimate “I don’t know” is the Buddhist letting go of a single, coherent self and so allowing a different kind of awareness to emerge out of that babble of voices.

    If you really want to go deep down the rabbit hole, look into how Jaynesian consciousness relates to the rise of brutal authoritarianism, something I always link to Johann Hari’s argument that the addict is the ultimate individual. My own argument is that modern authoritarianism requires individualism since before the individual was invented, according to Jaynes, social order could be maintained without oppressive violence.

    As for inner voice, you might find useful insights in Jaynes’ explanation of the shift from archaic authorization to self-authorization. It was the archaic authorization of the voices that maintained communality and conformity. Related to this, he also has a great section on hypnotism.

    But to understand any of that, it requires understanding his theory of language and metaphor (I still struggle with understanding the details). To understand that, it is helpful to be familiar with philology and philology’s kissing cousin, linguistic relativity. So much hinges on the power of language, a topic with much crossover with memetics.

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    1. For the purposes of your work, I could see how various parts of Jaynes theorizing could apply. His use of metaphors as a way of creating particular kinds of mental spaces, narratives, and selves. This relates to what kinds of voices are heard, in how they are perceived and identified. And that has everything to do with authorization, that is to say what legitimizes an experienced social reality and social order. All of this would operate differently depending on the v-meme. In particular, v-memes seem to be what is the voice of authority that authorizes.

      It would be interesting to compare how voices operate in different kind of societies. When a tribal person is possessed or when an Australian Aborigine is singing a Songline, they can literally speak with a different voice that represents a differing identity, being, or even worldview. What about the voices in our society, such as politicians and media figures? What social reality is being authorized?

      It’s easy to see how this fits in with a systems approach. It’s about how we relate to others and relate within ourselves, the two being inseparable.

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      1. It was a comment that went into more detail. I decided to give some real world examples of what was on my mind, of how voices and authorization operates in different kinds of societies.

        The first two comments posted just fine, as seen above. Then there was a third comment, right before the fourth comment where I asked you to look for it.

        If you can’t find it, I could try to post it again, but WordPress can get weird at times. When it decides it doesn’t like a comment, it can be challenging to get around it, at least on the commenter side of the equation.

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      2. It begins with the sentence, “I’ll give you some concrete examples.” You couldn’t find it in Spam or Trash? I’ve had WordPress, for some strange reason, randomly throw comments in Trash on occasion.

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      3. If you want, you could take all those parts and put them back together as part of the original comment. Then you could delete all the excess commentary that followed. I apologize for having cluttered up your comments section.

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    2. Let me try again. This time I’ll split the comment in two parts to see if that gets past WordPress. Here is the first part:

      I’ll give you some concrete examples. We’ll start of with the Piraha, what some might consider a survival band. Though I don’t know if that is exactly correct. They do some trade, use tools, build permanent shelter, etc. They are capable of preserving food (for trade), farming, building boats, and much else, even if they generally choose not to do so. And they have been in contact with Westerners, including missionaries, for centuries. They aren’t pristine, untouched “noble savages”, while it is true that they are powerfully resistant to outside cultural influence. And language seems to play a central role in that cultural insularity and coherence. Anyway, certainly to our modern sensibility they seem like a simple society, as close to a survival band as anthropologists and linguistics are to be able to study in a direct fashion. They maybe give us an approximation or suggestion of how earliest humans could have functioned.

      Look at their use of language, the voices they hear, and the authorization that it gives. Their language constrains their thought and dialogue almost entirely to immediate experience or else memories of immediate experience or firsthand accounts (memories of another who one personally knows) of immediate experience. They are, of course, an oral culture. But as far as I know, they lack any formal practices and traditions of mnemonics. The knowledge they need and pass on is more immediate. Unlike the Australian Aborigines, the Piraha don’t live in a harsh environment where they need to recall where distant resources are over multiple generations. The immediacy of voices is authorization. When Daniel Everett spoke of Jesus and read from the Bible, it compelled no authority to the Piraha. Everett never met Jesus and a book was meaningless. The only authority Everett had was that the Piraha liked him and considered him a friend, and so he was welcomed and included. The authority was in Everett’s direct presence, his living voice being as legitimate source of info as that of anyone else. They personally knew him and so personally trusted him. But the living voice, as an indicator of identity, is much more fluid and open.

      Hunter-gatherers often have a sense of identity that extends into the world immediately around them, maybe in the way that voices extend in a similar manner. Your identity includes the world as far as your voice extends. This also means that other voices can overlap with this extended self-space and so claim the identity. That is to say identity shifts and the voice spoken determines the particular authorization at play. Piraha, when they become what we consider possessed, speak with an authority of a spirit whose authority is by their immediate presence. The Piraha is no longer there and the spirit, in speaking, is the reality in that moment. That might give a hint at how Jaynes’ bicameral mind and society operated. There is no inner and outer, as later would arise with egoic consciousness. That authorization creates a particular sense of reality. The Piraha don’t believe in spirits. The spirits are only real when they are present. They are directly, personally, and collectively experienced. No belief is required. In one incident, Everett heard commotion down by the river. When he arrived, all the Piraha were pointing across the river at a spirit. Everett and his family, however, saw nothing. The archaic authorization only works for those lacking egoic consciousness, as seems to be the case for the Piraha. That doesn’t make them stupid or less human. It’s simply they don’t possess and aren’t possessed by rigid egoic boundaries that create an internal narrative space that allows for an inner voice of self-authorization, i.e., Jaynesian consciousness.

      The moment mnemonic systems are used, the psychological and social dynamic changes. This is seen with the Australian Aborigines that, in comparison to the Piraha, had a complex and highly advanced society. The Aborigines were already developing agriculture and ranching, including granaries, water management, and moving animals from one area of pasture to another. It is a harsh environment, but through highly developed practices they were able to make the land flourish like a garden, as described by the first Europeans to see it before it was destroyed. This required immense knowledge and technological practice to maintain. Authorization, by way of songlines, became highly systematized. Authority was held by those who held the knowledge, but it wasn’t that some people controlled knowledge. To learn or otherwise gain a song that imbued the power of knowledge was to be possessed by it. The song was the voice of a god and, in singing it, one spoke with the voice of that god. Observers have seen how Aborigines will change personality when immersed in a songline ritual.

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      1. That is amusing. Now it won’t let me post the second part of the comment. Well, at least you got the first four paragraphs. There are four more paragraphs to the whole thing. WordPress is one of the glitchiest websites I know of.

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      2. I’m going to give this one more attempt. This time I’ll break it down even further. The second part will itself be in two parts. Here it goes. Wish me luck! Below is the first part of the second part (I’ll give it a few minutes until attempting the second part of the second part):

        Here is an interesting detail that shows an intermediary step. For the Piraha, they are simply apart of the world and the world a part of them. There is no ability to make a distinction. But for the Aborigines, a distinction had developed. There was no singular world but many worlds that could be entered, each separate from the others. There isn’t exactly an internal space in the sense of egoic consciousness, and yet thicker boundaries are being formed in that that there is an internal space to each songline. The gods have voices that one enters into. And once a songline is learned, an individual can follow it and access the knowledge even when not in the geography that the songline describes and invokes. It’s the first step in internalization. The second step, as Lynne Kelly explains, is when mnemonic systems take on an initial abstraction through ritualized spaces, such as megaliths. This might come around because the former geographical territory was lost somehow (war, environmental change, etc) and so an artificial geography is constructed. This also involves a further settling down, at least for part of the year. These megaliths were being built before agriculture even began. One theory is that it was the building of sacred spaces that allowed the discovery of agriculture, as it was only in returning to the exact same place on a regular basis that agriculture could even be possible. Agriculture then would’ve become a feedback loop in how diet would alter the mind and body and hence alter society.

        More importantly, authorization would shift into a new tradition of deified god-men, originally the mummified kings that continued to be heard as voices until living memory erased them. A semi-permanence of authority was becoming established, the initial spark of religiosity that wasn’t yet quite religion as we know it. Authorization still required the memory of a living voice, but this brought a new focus on death cults and the belief in a life beyond death, if at first this only applied to the mummified kings. That is far different from the Piraha who have no concern about death itself, much less speculating about what might follow after it. A living voice turned into a remembered voice is a thin layer of abstraction. Eventually, there was developed ways of making these god-like and ancestral voices become permanent. An established priestly class and an bloodline monarchy would allow continuity of archaic authorization. Ritualized sayings maintained voices as externalized thoughts, ready made answers for most situations. Civilization becomes separated from nature. For the Piraha, the voices came out of the jungle. But for bicameral societies, the voices came out of the social structure of temples, statues, rituals, etc. It was a self-contained world with voices everywhere. And going out into the wilderness, especially alone, was a dangerous venture for who knows what voices might show up to harm or possess one or to drive one mad. This is the next level of internalization with an often literal rigid boundary having been formed by the building of city walls.

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      3. This is way too funny. Now WordPress won’t let the second part of the second part be posted. Those WordPress algorithms or whatever is going on have their own mind. Either that or there is an infestation of Gremlins. But this weird commenting stuff has been going on for years and years.

        You’d think they’d get enough complaints that, at some point, they might think about fixing it. There are people who have been commenting on my blog for longer than I can remember and it doesn’t make any difference. Their comments regularly get dispatched into Spam and Trash.

        At this point, is it a bug or a feature?

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      4. Split it again? Okay. Part two of part two broken once more into two parts. Below is the first of the last paragraphs. Just for good measure I’ll break up the paragraph itself and make it into several paragraphs.

        The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations decimated that once powerful system. The devices and practice used to invoke voices were gone. Mass waves of refugees were lost in the wilderness and the voices had grown quiet and increasingly silent for most of the population. Only a few voice-hearers remained (e.g., the Homeric tradition). This presaged the coming Axial Age when literary traditions would develop with scrolls and then bound books. Authorization was shifted onto paper and so voices of authority could survive far beyond living memory, even across centuries and millennia.

        Still, this phase of development hadn’t yet fully created a strong internal space and inner voice to stand against outer forms of authority, although this was beginning to happen. Look at early texts. Up into the Middle Ages, books were written to be read aloud. The voices that lived within a book were only made living by being spoken with a living voice. This was necessary because text wasn’t written for silent reading, in lacking punctuation and sometimes vowels. The words had to be carefully sounded out in order to decipher the text. Later developments encouraged silent reading that, at first, was seen as an almost magical ability. Archaic authorization was being dismantled and replaced. This required technological changes in media and institutions of authority.

        The gods who had been trapped first in mummies, then in statues, and finally in books were now internalized within the human individual, initially as a small still voice and eventually simply as the ego-self.

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      5. I’m almost there. There is only one paragraph left. I’ll dismantle it like the last comment. Here it goes…

        Self-authorization was fully established, even as the old archaic authorization kept re-appearing in various forms, from hypnotism to authoritarianism. All of the voices heard by animistic and bicameral humans are still there deep within the psyche, although today they hide themselves in the new media in our being surrounded by mediated forms of authorization (news anchors, talking heads, radio talk show hosts, actors, etc) that tell us what to think and believe, how to perceive and behave.

        The gods are still with us, but we like to pretend we are sophisticated and autonomous individuals. That is our modern mythology. To genuinely state that “I don’t know” would be among the most radical of acts, as the self-authorization of the ego-self is dependent on a belief in knowing. Where would that leave us, if we let go of our egocentrism? What new forms of authorization might develop into the future? Specifically, what would be an integral and integrated authorization that incorporated our full humanity, including the animistic and bicameral?

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