• Mariner
    374
    Gods have been with us since the beginning of time. There is no known culture without gods. This phenomenon is not dependent on the word "god", of course. The Greeks, Mayans, Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, all used their own words (different in each case) to talk about the gods.

    In spite of this diversity of terminology, there is no controversy, among students of mythology, about what constitutes a god. One easy way to start research on the title question is to look at wikipedia, as a first approach. Unfortunately, the page "God" does not recognize the lower case g, and goes straight to a discussion of big-G God, which is not my interest here. So, the next best thing is to look at the entry for "polytheism". There, we see this:

    "In most religions which accept polytheism, the different gods and goddesses are representations of forces of nature or ancestral principles, and can be viewed either as autonomous or as aspects or emanations of a creator deity or transcendental absolute principle (monistic theologies), which manifests immanently in nature (panentheistic and pantheistic theologies)."

    There is some excessive interpretation by the author of this sentence (particularly when it addresses transcendence/immanence, creation, etc.). We can discard this for now, since we are looking at what are gods in the eyes of those who first came up with that notion. I don't think there is any evidence for it being developed in a top-down fashion (i.e. someone came up with the notion of a "creator deity" or a "transcendental absolute principle" and then developed, out of this notion, the idea of "lower gods"). It is more intuitive, parsimonious, and in accordance with the evidence (archaeological, mythological, etymological) to assume that the first step in the development of the notion of "god" was the bit about the "representation of forces of nature or ancestral principles".

    So, we have to picture a proto-human, coming out of its animal origins (N.B this is not a brilliant individual -- it is a process that spans generations), and entering a process that ends with the clear notion of "gods" in his worldview. What is this process? It is, basically, linguistic development. It is the act of naming that engenders the gods-as-a-notion. A name is a mental object that can be (mentally) manipulated.

    It must be emphasized again -- I'll probably emphasize it a few more times -- that this is not the work of a brilliant individual, or of a few geniuses. The main part of the work happens in the unconscious. Indeed, the gods are older than our conscious minds. Our "consciousness" was also the product of linguistic development, and before we realized we were conscious, we already were living in a world full of gods.

    Anyway. That the work proceeds unconsciously does not mean that we cannot analyse it from our current vantage point. What was going on in the unconscious minds of generations of humans, for thousands and thousands of years, before they started to say that "there are gods"? Or, what is probably more correct, before they started to say that there are X and Y and Z and M and N and P (words that have been lost, words being used 40,000 years ago), and to fear and worship and respect what was symbolized by those words? The more generalized notion of "gods" is already a development over that stage.

    It is not so hard to identify what was going on. The unconscious was rational, back then, as it is today. It wanted to build up a working model of the world, and it wanted to map out the best and worst ways to act in that world, so as to enhance survival. This is basic Darwinism and it is hard to gainsay the principle.

    So, the gods were mental instruments to deal with the world.

    And how exactly did they help with that?

    By being the foundation of a cause-and-effect worldview. "A because B" is a worldview that works. And the gods helped with that by unifying observations. To give an imaginary but plausible example: A lion is a dangerous predator. We should be wary of lions. If we see a lion, we should retreat. Etc. There is a cluster of observations around the notion of a lion. And the continuity of this observation between today and tomorrow is guaranteed by the idea that there is a god of lions; or, as we should say it nowadays, there are reasons why lions have traits X, Y, Z, etc., which entail our caution or fear or retreat. But this language of "there are reasons" was not available for people 40,000 years ago. They spoke of gods.

    This was just the beginning, of course. The process was bottom-up, and some thousand years later, we had developed the notion of a supreme deity (summodeism -- not the same thing as monotheism), the "reason behind the reasons" in modern language, or "the god behind the gods" in ancient language.

    This is already too long for an OP, so I'll stop here. The main point is to observe that the gods are a rational answer to a practical demand in our evolutionary past; and that to question whether they "exist" or not is a whole different matter. (It must be noted that "existence" was not present in the minds of those people as a concept; all they interacted with were "existing stuff" as far as they were concerned, including their mental instruments).
  • jorndoe
    3.4k
    My emphasis:

    Gods have been with us since the beginning of time. There is no known culture without gods. This phenomenon is not dependent on the word "god", of course.Mariner

    In a very broad sense of the term "gods" perhaps, though I think that could be misleading.

    Animism (Wikipedia)
    Panpsychism (Wikipedia)
    Pirahã (Wikipedia)
  • ArguingWAristotleTiff
    5k
    So, the gods were mental instruments to deal with the world.Mariner

    Yes. I do believe that the idea of a "God" or many "Gods" were created by the living to explain the unexplainable.
  • unenlightened
    8.9k
    It seems entirely natural to me to treat things as beings. People even now talk to their cars or computers and try to cajole them into behaving themselves. Why would one not thank the tree for its gifts, apologise to the gazelle one kills and eats, try and persuade the river not to flood the village, but to provide more fish? How could one not understand that the volcano gets angry and lashes out?

    The volcano is a big and powerful god, the tree spirit is perhaps a small god, or perhaps an aspect or an incarnation of a bigger god. What I find more in need of explanation is the depopulation of the animate world into the abstraction of things and laws. Things follow laws but know nothing of them - like that makes sense?
  • frank
    14.9k
    So, the gods were mental instruments to deal with the world.Mariner

    Remember the ancients saw gods all around them. The sun is one of the oldest prominent divinities. What does the sun explain exactly?

    What strikes me about ancient stories is that people thought they could talk to the sun and ask it for help. My theory is that we analyze pre-reflective experience in a linguistic way. Hunting is like asking the world for food. Searching is like asking where something is. As we interpret the world's answers, there is a remaining impression that the world is alive and conscious.

    And that's what divinity is, to some extent: life and consciousness. We can see this by asking why we don't think the sun is divine today. What is it missing that it would have to have in order to be divine? How would you answer that? (I'm curious).
  • jorndoe
    3.4k
    What strikes me about ancient stories is that people thought they could talk to the sun and ask it for help.frank

    Sometimes by means of sacrifice I guess (even human).

    We aren't quite born a tabula rasa, and we aren't exactly perfect.
    We're subject to a rather tedious list of well-documented cognitive biases, like personification or agent detection, for example, which also is related to apophenia, pareidolia, and patternicity.
    Introspection illusions, hysteria, the reiteration effect, autosuggestion, ...
    Makes you wonder how much we have actually learned. :)

    Need good epistemic standards.
  • praxis
    6.2k
    By being the foundation of a cause-and-effect worldview. "A because B" is a worldview that works. And the gods helped with that by unifying observations. To give an imaginary but plausible example: A lion is a dangerous predator. We should be wary of lions. If we see a lion, we should retreat. Etc. There is a cluster of observations around the notion of a lion. And the continuity of this observation between today and tomorrow is guaranteed by the idea that there is a god of lions; or, as we should say it nowadays, there are reasons why lions have traits X, Y, Z, etc., which entail our caution or fear or retreat.Mariner

    Clusters of observations are auto-associated in a neural network, I understand, so that would make a god concept superfluous to the task of unification on an individual level. Gods could add meaning and in so doing unify on a social level.
  • Mariner
    374
    What does the sun explain exactly?frank

    This is a weird question, since the sun explains almost everything that happens in an ordinary life. The cycles of day and night, the seasonal cycles, the growing of crops, the biological rhythms, rains... it is hard to see a relevant aspect of primitive life that is not directly and clearly related to the sun. (Hard, but not impossible. Volcanoes would be an example).

    Now, your follow-up question is related to unenlightened's post. Why is it that the gods have retreated? This is a big question with a proportionately big answer, but the beginning of that answer is the observation that this was the work of Abraham and his heirs. The de-divinization of the world was achieved as a direct effect of the development of monotheism; a monotheism that insisted (against all evidence, in the contemporary worldview) that the one god that mattered (originally -- later, they would claim that he was the only god that was real in any sense) was emphatically not to be identified with the sun, the storm, the ocean, and other "big powers".

    In other words, while 40,000 years ago our unconscious reacted (unconsciously :D) to any significant and relevant (and recurring) new phenomenon by adding a new god, under Abraham and his heirs, the worldview was "this is NOT a new god". Even though the path of least resistance was to accept the phenomenon as a new god (which is why the OT is a chronicle of "relapses into idolatry", by the viewpoint of the authors of the documents).

    Clusters of observations are auto-associated in a neural network, I understand, so that would make a god concept superfluous to the task of unification on an individual level. God’s could add meaning and in so doing unify on a social level.praxis

    Yes, a god concept is superfluous in certain circumstances. But an important part of the story is that we must distinguish between our conscious minds and the unconscious substrate that engenders our thoughts. There is a two-way street between these two. Our concepts (consciously and painstakingly developed) influence our unconscious. This means that a concept may look superfluous if examined by its instrumental values, but it may have other effects (and the tough part of it is that these other effects are unconscious, i.e., we don't know about them, not directly).

    I think that your phrase "Gods could add meaning" is an attempt to address this unconscious process. It is a good attempt, I can't think of anything as succinct as that which would be better. But we don't really know what "Gods could add meaning" means :D.

    A more general comment to the OP is that it approaches the issue from a cognitive/perceptual angle, but that is not the whole story. Gods are not merely mental instruments for dealing with the world, they are also judges and avengers and "rewarders". In the unconscious out of which the gods emerged, there is no neat boundary between cognition/perception and morality.

    (And perhaps there should not be. Perhaps this is how "Gods could add meaning" works).
  • frank
    14.9k
    This is a weird question, since the sun explains almost everything that happens in an ordinary life. The cycles of day and night, the seasonal cycles, the growing of crops, the biological rhythms, rains... it is hard to see a relevant aspect of primitive life that is not directly and clearly related to the sun. (Hard, but not impossible. Volcanoes would be an example).Mariner

    I'm not following how the sun serves as an explanation here as opposed to a thing to be explained. I don't deny that divinity played an explanatory role, but I think there's more to it. I reject the notion that ancients saw a clear distinction between a dead, unconscious world that needs explaining and living, conscious explanations. That's a recent worldview. I think ancients saw the whole thing as a sort of living thing. I'd like to dredge up some analysis of the works of Homer that support that, but I don't have time at the moment. :)

    The de-divinization of the world was achieved as a direct effect of the development of monotheism;Mariner

    Interesting. You may have something there.
  • Mariner
    374
    I fully agree (about the recent development of an explanatory worldview). We are trying to dissect a worldview that was very different from what we are used to. The OP is very limited on account on that. To discuss this aspect would require an essay (or more). What we are referring to as "explanations" is the end result of an unconscious process that presented itself directly.

    In a very important sense, the mythical worldview is more akin to our dreams and nightmares than to our "awakened vision". Another good analogy is with toddlers. Babies are mostly unconscious (compared to us). They are the playthings of the gods. It takes some years before they learn to say "I", which is the first step towards a "modern consciousness".
  • frank
    14.9k
    I agree with all of that. Goethe's description of his childhood: "Half child's play, half God in the heart."

    Would you correlate monotheism with a sort of awakened vision?
  • Mariner
    374
    I wouldn't use "awakened". It has some overtones of "enlightenment" in a Buddhist sense. (Not that there's anything wrong with that :D. But I wouldn't want to confuse the issue).

    I prefer to call it "development". Monotheism is one natural development of polytheism. This development happens under the (social) pressure to unify the worlds into one world. As people discover other cultures, environments, ideas, etc. they are led to develop "explanations" (in the unconscious sense) for this coexistence of disparities, and this leads to monotheism.

    It is not inevitable, though, as India demonstrates.
  • frank
    14.9k
    As people discover other cultures, environments, ideas, etc. they are led to develop "explanations" (in the unconscious sense) for this coexistence of disparities, and this leads to monotheism.Mariner

    How so? The disparities move one toward the realm of abstraction? As if the different explanations are varying attempts to point to the same thing?
  • Mariner
    374
    Yep. The reason behind the reasons. There are hints of such a development outside the Abrahamic tradition, incidentally. Cf. Akhenaton in the Egyptian milieu.
  • frank
    14.9k
    "Just as the hand has many fingers, God gives us many paths." -- Kublai Khan's father in answer to a Christian who asked him why he wouldn't convert to Christianity. The Mongols weren't exactly monotheists, though. They never converted en masse to any religion. Their tribal religion was shamanic (sun worship, I think).

    Maybe we could see them as the process at an early stage.
  • Mariner
    374
    Well, this process was no longer linear by then. There were cross-influences from "more developed" (in this sense) cultures, there were lingering polytheists, etc. etc.

    There is no getting back to the "original setting", and "less developed cultures" such as the Mongols of the 1200's or the "primitives" of today are not identical to the people of 40,000 years ago. We have a historical bias when we think about this, that leads us to (1) forget that when "history dawned" (say, 5,000 BC) there were vastly longer spans of time in which there were "modern humans" (in a biological sense) interacting with each other and with the world, and (2) to suppose that the hows, whens and wheres of the process were pretty much determined by outer forces (as if this process was the resultant of "natural events").
  • praxis
    6.2k
    But we don't really know what "Gods could add meaning" means :D.Mariner

    An overarching narrative that expresses shared values, common goals, and the like. The elements of meaning. I’d think that would be unifying and that the unification of a group would have clear survival advantages.
  • All sight
    333
    I reject these notions of "primitive pasts" and sophisticated presents. On our way to being God. I prefer the notion that the gods were representations of the drives, and forces, of the universal, which ultimately becomes idolized in language itself, abstracted from living and sense. Is living in a wax museum an advancement, where everything seems dead for some reason?

    The progression I look to, and at is personal, and individual, in the sense of to what orders one can sense, experience, bare witness to. What directs their lives, they have a relationship with, and commune with daily with their senses and actions. This isn't apprehended from a description, nor an "explanation". As if something could be made sense of, that you have no sense for. Ultimately reduced to this comparative evaluation of progress, and evolution, and inferiority, of delusion and unreality (or only real in some sense that no one immersed in it thought).
  • frank
    14.9k
    We have a historical bias when we think about this, that leads us to (1) forget that when "history dawned" (say, 5,000 BC) there were vastly longer spans of time in which there were "modern humans" (in a biological sense) interacting with each other and with the world, and (2) to suppose that the hows, whens and wheres of the process were pretty much determined by outer forces (as if this process was the resultant of "natural events").Mariner

    Sure. We made it all the way to Australia 60,000 years ago. We're awesome. If the process is a natural one, though, why couldn't it have echoes and harmonics? Why couldn't you see it sort of unfolding in your own life? Or in contemporary speculative physics? The imperative for unification.
  • Mariner
    374
    Why couldn't you see it sort of unfolding in your own life? Or in contemporary speculative physics? The imperative for unification.frank

    I see it in all of that.
  • praxis
    6.2k
    Should the move from polytheism to monotheism be explored further or do you intend to move on, Mariner?
  • Streetlight
    9.1k
    I think a useful way to think about Gods is in terms of mediation; Gods express the desire for immediation or of the immediate - of doing things without recourse to a 'medium' or 'media' (from Greek metaxy or Latin medius, meaning 'in-between' or 'middle'). This ideal of immediacy may not always be absolute, but, when taken to the limit you get the three 'omnis' (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniescent), each of which expresses a dimension of immediacy: immidiation of power, immediation of space and time (and life), immidiation of knowledge (where nothing stands in the way in the exercise of power, movement, or knowledge).

    Another way to understand this is in terms of Kant's distinction between 'intellectual' and 'sensible' intuition: intellectual intuition is where thought and thing coincide, where to think something is to bring it into being (this is the kind of intuition God has, says Kant. Humans only have sensible intuition, where thinking takes place first and foremost as a passive reception of what is already there: thinking doesn't bring the object of thought into being). The idea here is that for God, there is no gap or distance (no mediation) between thought and thing: thought is immediately thing.

    ---

    In this sense the OP is right to locate naming as a central device of divine creation: in naming, nominata and nominatum (the name and the thing named) coincide absolutely (think here of Kripke's rigid designators, in which names resolutely do not describe, but, as it were, designate absolutely). Naming admits of no mediation. Giorgio Agamben, following the work of Hermann Usener, documents how divine names tend to originally be related to certain rituals and processes (the tilling of the fields, the invocation of rain), before becoming 'detached' from those processes and become pure names:

    "Usener shows that even divinities who have entered into mythology, like Persephone and Pomona, were originally "special gods" who named, respectively, the breaking through of buds (prosero) and the maturation of fruits (poma). All the names of the gods ... are initially names of actions or brief events, Sondergotter (special Gods) who, through a long historico-linguistic process, lost their relationship with the living vocabulary and, becoming more and more unintelligible, were transformed into proper names. At this point, when it had already been stably linked to a proper name, 'the divine concept gains the ability and impetus to receive a personal form in myth and cult, poetry and art'."

    As such, the process of naming is intimately linked to the divine: "The "name" the is the being of God, and God is the being that coincides with its name"; for Agamben, this is how one should interpret the 'ontological argument', in which essence and existence coincide (i.e are not mediated!): "The connection of the theological theme of the name of God with the philosophical one of absolute being, in which essence and existence coincide, is definitively carried out in Catholic theology, in particular in the form of argument that, since Kant, one is accustomed to defining as ontological." (Agamben, The Sacrament of Language).

    This of course is simply the limit-case of immidiation, best exemplified by the monotheistic Gods (who absolutize the otherwise 'relative' immidiation of the polytheist or animist Gods, who only have certain powers of immidiacy and not others - thus Poseidon has power over the sea, Artemis over the hunt, etc, but never 'everything'). This fantasy of immidiation is of course primitive: part of the process of becoming an adult is to rely less and less on the mediation of others (to eat one's own food instead of having it being fed to one); 'Gods' are simply the fantasy of this process taken to certain or absolute limits. They reflect something in reality, but unbounded from it (hence the frequent invocations and associations of the eternal (unbounded by the mediacy of time) and the immaterial (unbounded by the mediacy of matter). Atheism is partly the insistence on the irreducibility of the medial.
  • unenlightened
    8.9k
    The de-divinization of the world was achieved as a direct effect of the development of monotheism; a monotheism that insisted (against all evidence, in the contemporary worldview) that the one god that mattered (originally -- later, they would claim that he was the only god that was real in any sense) was emphatically not to be identified with the sun, the storm, the ocean, and other "big powers".Mariner

    I find it hard not to continue the progression to the denial of the last God, and eventually the de-animation of humanity itself into a 'mechanism'. Even our own consciousness is now 'an illusion', or 'an epiphenomenon'. I suppose you would like to see this as progress up to the point of monotheism, followed by degeneration, but I'm not sure how to justify drawing that line?
  • TheWillowOfDarkness
    2.1k


    We might say it has already progressed the moment God is placed outside the empirical world. Once monotheism leaves behind a being that manifests in reality, atheism has obtained. God no longer does anything, becoming nothing more than a feature of what happens.

    The price of monotheism is God's existence. As per analysis of the ontological argument, "God" and "not God" are equivalent. Perfection, omnipotence and omniscience comes with the price tag of everything. God can only be of whatever happens. God cannot be the distinct being enacting some particular states over others.

    Atheism is just the apotheosis of monotheism, a moment in which it is realised the infinity of God cannot be the powerful friend who rescues us. The instant someone says: "God does not manifest in the world," we might say they have an atheism with respect to monotheism.

    Interestingly, atheism doesn't really conflict with polytheism, at least not in logical definition. The atheist is free to believe any number of polytheist gods are possible. In some cases, the atheist (in a sense opposed to a monotheistic deity) would even have reason to believe a polytheist god existed. All it would take is the existence of the appropriate being. Even YHWH might be possible and believed in this sense: if YHWH manifested, acted in the word, the atheist would have reason to affirm YHWH's existence. Only the monotheism would be false, YHWH being just another being of the world, who might be overpowered, destroyed or beaten at some point.

    Monotheism is little strange in that it's very intention is a move to destroy itself. It wants to cite the overwhelming perfection of reality in the face of many horrible possibilities, to hold onto that perfection even when terrible things are happening. Yet, the only way to do this is to include everything of the being of God, to admit everything terrible is of God, rather than the existence which would be prevented or fixed by the appropriate powerful being. The very aim of the monotheistic God is to be outside the question of existing. It maintains no matter what exists.
  • Mariner
    374
    I suppose you would like to see this as progress up to the point of monotheism, followed by degeneration, but I'm not sure how to justify drawing that line?unenlightened

    Progress and degeneration are too value-laden in my opinion. To me, there are many ways to symbolize our predicament as finite beings in an ocean of chaos, and all of them are true if they are sincere (i.e. if they proceed from an attempt to symbolize actual experiences). Insincere symbolisms, in my view, are an impossibility. What is possible along these lines is the acceptance of someone else's symbolism for what I would say are "insufficient reasons" (aka "dogmatism") -- but my opinion is not really relevant in the judgment of anyone who did not invite it.

    In the comparison of actual symbolisms, though, I am of the opinion that some of them are more adequate to express our conundrum. The criterion is whether the given symbolism encompasses more experiences (mine and of others) than the alternative. I am a Catholic because I think this symbolism is the most well-developed in this sense. And if I were to criticize "atheism" (which cannot really be done without a comparison with an alternative), my main line of argumentation would be that atheism leaves "out of its map" too many important experiences to be considered more adequate than the kinds of "theism" that I'm acquainted with. But I can easily understand that a non-dogmatic atheist would reply that my map has too many extraneous symbols, referring to experiences that he or she lacks.
  • Grey Vs Gray
    29
    It wanted to build up a working model of the world, and it wanted to map out the best and worst ways to act in that world, so as to enhance survival. This is basic Darwinism and it is hard to gainsay the principle.Mariner

    It always annoys me when intent is attributed to evolution. Evolution is cause by death and sex or chance and uncontrolled attraction. The idiots of today may be the gods of tomorrow. The entire mammalian subsection derived from what was basically a rat, it wasn't some grand scheme, altering and growing to survive, it was a rat.
  • Mariner
    374
    I would be wary of the "mythology is a disease of language" theme. I think Owen Barfield's arguments against it (in "Poetic Diction" and especially in "Saving the Appearances") are very strong -- namely, that we cannot say that the names being used in a very, very ancient time were the names of "pure objects" (i.e. purely empirical names) such as the breaking of buds and the maturation of fruits. The maturation of fruits and the breaking of buds were not construed as bereft of divinity. To be sure, the names of the gods can be traced to the names of actions or pure events, but the direction of the influence is not so simple. When we posit an ancient consciousness as a pure observer of events and actions which later "lost their relationship with the vocabulary" and, in a sense, forgot that the words were non-divine in origin, we are presuming that this ancient consciousness had a very modern relationship with the world surrounding it. It does not fit with what we know of that consciousness.

    More succinctly, the idea that the "world full of gods" was built upon a "world without gods" is more ideological than supported by the evidence.
  • unenlightened
    8.9k
    Ok, can I press you a little further? If atheism is impoverished in relation to monotheism, is not monotheism impoverished in relation to animism? (I hope my shorthand here is comprehensible and acceptable.)
  • Mariner
    374
    Not for me. A reason behind the reasons makes the world more meaningful for me. (This is a point regarding "mere monotheism", not Christianity per se).

    A polytheist (ou animistic) consciousness would probably disagree. Which is why I said that the development of monotheism was not inevitable.
  • Streetlight
    9.1k
    Hmm, I think you've misread, or I was not clear enough in my exposition (or a bit of both): it's not that names were of pure objects to begin with; quite the opposite: it's acknowledged that names of significant events were often bound up with the sacred: "For every act and situation that could be important to the men of that time, special gods were created and named with distinct verbal coinages: in this way, not only are the acts and situations as a whole divinized, but even their parts, singular actions, and moments" (Usener, quoted in Agamben). The argument is instead that what tends to happen is that the names become pure, they lose their connection with the objects and events from which they were initially bound, such that Gods become (or rather, are shown to always have been) their names.

    So the passage is the opposite to the one you seem to have read into my post: it's not that words were non-divine in origin; rather, words were often divine in origin, and what they shed was their reference to the event or action with with they were originally bound up with, to become even more so ("as we have seen by means of the Sondergotter (special Gods) the proper name of the god and the predicate that describes a certain action (harrowing, fertilizing, etc.) are not yet divided. Naming and denotation (or, as we have seen, the assertorial and veridictional aspect of language) are originally inseparable"); but they become separated, and the God or Gods attain the pure status of the name alone. This being made most explicit in Christian tradition where God announces his own circular coincidence (i.e. immidiation) with himself: "I am who I am".

    In any case, the recourse to language here was simply meant as an exemplification of the aspect of immidiation which I find useful in characterizing the divine.
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