Gods, Volcanoes, and AI

I’m some ways into a book called Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, by Simon Winchester. It came highly recommended from my father, and he lent me the book, so I figured why not. It’s mostly about the colonial history and geology of the region, the sort of stuff that’s interesting to me any day of the week, but more obviously it’s about volcanoes – and by extension, how humans deal with volcanoes.

I also recently read an opinion piece called The AI Cargo Cult: The Myth of a Superhuman AIwritten by the guy who founded Wired. In it he describes a likely reality of artificial intelligence, and the myth of universal intelligence – that is, the sort of intelligence we possess and uncritically compare all other forms of intelligence to in true “man is the measure of all things” fashion. So it’s a piece about non-human intelligence, and by extension, how humans deal with it.

These two seemingly disparate subjects are of some import to us as polytheists and animists, mostly because, put together, they closely resemble how we conceive of, and conduct relationship with, non-human Powers.

First off, it should be established that Gods aren’t human, and if They once were, then They aren’t any longer. And if They aren’t human, then it should follow that They do not possess a human sort of intelligence; They just aren’t made up of the same constituent parts, or experience the world with the same senses, or do Their thinking with the same sort of minds. Instead, They possess an intelligence unique to spirits. No polytheist can deny this. At least, I hope not.

Then why do we so often demand that They cow to very uniquely human kinds of logic and understanding? We don’t expect this from any other non-human on this planet, and when we do, it’s recognized as being poor form at best, and abusive at worst. Cesar Milan has founded his entire celebrity on working with the non-human intelligence of canines; where some would view that kind of “dog whispering” as completely animal-centered, I disagree: to me, that’s an adequate meeting in the middle.

You see, in a society where “man is the measure of all things”, it’s difficult to get our heads out of our asses and really see just how much room we take up in our relationships with the world and its spirits. In the same way that a group that’s exactly half women makes the men therein erroneously feel that they are the minority, it seems that any yielding of our power or autonomy to a God or spirit gives us the impression that we’ve been wronged.

I feel like this sentiment began with the modern concept of rights: that every human, simply by virtue of being born into this species, has earned the luxury of being spared certain inconveniences and miseries. Only, that list continues to grow, and it’s begun to entitle us all to things that maybe have no grounding in material reality, like internet access. Such a notion is exactly as absurd as declaring that free and open access to bonbons is a human right. This has also had the unsettling effect of narrowing the list of appropriate ways to die – there are now so few “natural” ways that one can pass into the realm of the dead that one wonders how soon it’ll be before science and progressivists declare death itself as an enemy in need of eradication.

This sort of mortal discomfort touches even our relationship with the Gods; especially for those who carry themselves as progressive. The Gods can be violent, terrible, and indiscriminate in their fury. We loathe and fear this darker side of things so much that we feel compelled to squelch it wherever possible, to help alleviate that existential dread: they now make vegetarian food for dogs, a family of animal designed to be almost completely carnivorous. When the cat brings a dead bird or mouse to the doorstep, doing exactly the thing that their feline intelligence compels them to do for the greater feline good, we look on in horror and avoid thinking on the living, breathing creature the prey was not long ago. And yet, we still build relationships with Housecat.

One fine August day about 135 years ago, the God responsible for Krakatoa killed 40,000 people and wiped an island off the map. Was that murder or catastrophe? A progressivist polytheist ontology can do nothing but condemn this as the former, unless it can break itself and declare that Gods are not, in fact, the things that They embody. To do this would be theological suicide, and they know it; so settling for inconsistency is often the preferred way out of such false dilemmas. What does cooking the books like this allow us to do, exactly? Well, it conveniently erases all non-human actions, relegating them to a sort of gray-area of “mundane” processes that science has sufficiently demystified. The human-like actions, however, stay – this debt can, we believe, be collected on. And as of late we’ve been trying.

If Gods are not atomized individuals in possession of a human intelligence Who simply float around in the ether, then Their natures are shaped by that which They manifest as. And the price for manifesting in the world is pain, unyielding cycles of tumult, and sometimes pure, unmitigated violence. Sometimes Gods kill 40,000 people in pyroclastic flows, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Sometimes they come to earth as hurricanes and scatter entire towns to the winds. Sometimes they murder. Sometimes they mutilate. Sometimes they rape.

Sometimes when I read the blogs of progressivist polytheists, it feels less like we’re participating in co-creation with Divinities and more like we’re in an uneasy treaty with a vastly different country and still trying to negotiate the terms of a ceasefire. Let’s not beat around the bush here: if everything could be on our terms, we’d make sure it would be. Most of us seem to tolerate the Gods because They’re Gods. They’re the unimaginably powerful stewards of all things in the world and many things without – but the moment They become something that is not us, like a volcano, They are suspect. The moment They demonstrate that They possess non-human intelligence and non-human priorities, we ready the troops and prepare for war.

If we could domesticate the volcano, we would. If we could somehow, by our own design, make sure that not a single mountain blew its top ever again, we would leap at the chance, even though that would mean no more new islands, no more growing mountain peaks in active zones, and no more rich volcanic soil. Even though that would mean no more volcano Gods. We’d be like the Klingons, killing Them one by one because they didn’t sufficiently bow to our human delineation of “good”. We did this to the United States’ large predator species once too. And now look at us: pathetically scrambling to salvage what wolves and bears and cougars we have left because all too late did we realize that their teeth and their claws and their antagonistically non-human ways were necessary for our world to continue making sense.

Reading these blogs, I see a similarity to a fringe collection of vegans I encountered on social media once. Vegans so post-modernly confounded by their own slippery slopes and by their vice-grip on the ephemeral concept of rights that they decided the only logical place a “true” veganism could end would be with the systemic eradication of all carnivorous animals by way of genetic engineering and stringent legislation. I’ll leave you a moment to ponder the sheer absurdity of that rabbit hole of uniquely flawed human understanding.

AI is forcing the hand of many a human these days. Ever since the recent realization that computer intelligence (let’s not contribute to the misnomer of “artificiality” here) has officially begun to know things that we humans will never know, it’s brought out both the paranoia and smug acquiescence in droves. In The A.I. Cargo Cult, Kevin Kelley postulates a few “heresies” in the face of the supposed inevitability of superhuman AI. I find a few of them applicable here:

  • Intelligence is not a single dimension, so “smarter than humans” is a meaningless concept.
  • Humans do not have general purpose minds, and neither will AIs.

He goes on to explain what intelligence is, and more importantly, what it is not, and why any sort of intelligence, whether computer-based or not, can thought of as intrinsically “smarter” than humans. Why? Because smarter-than and less-smarter-than are human constructs, based on a human conception of intelligence that places simplicity at the bottom and complexity at the top, where we have so conveniently placed ourselves in recent centuries.

And so this quantifiable, sliding scale of intelligence is so projected upon our Gods. If man is the measure of all things, then surely we, too, are the measure of Them as well. This has given us such novel ideas as “belief” being the sole staff of life for all Gods and spirits who have ever existed, as though we are the ones actually responsible for creating the universe.

The issues and questions facing the world of AI right now won’t be relevant for long. The resource base upon which the entire machine of production rests will soon be showing stress cracks, and eventually will be going the way of the nuclear-powered dodo. But they are, in a sense, the same questions plaguing the progressivist polytheist milieu. There is love for Gods only when They do what we want Them to do – as soon as They show inhuman faces, faces of beings who would kill 40,000 because that’s just what They do, we demand Their supplication; call Them “out”; campaign to assassinate Their characters. They are, after all, intelligent beings, right? They can be reasoned with using human logic, no?

The story of AI right now is the story of a people being faced with the (erroneous) realization that they have created gods. From a polytheist perspective, this idea is so markedly absurd that it almost merits ridicule: is godhood attained by sheer “quantitiy” of intelligence alone? Of course not. As stated earlier, intelligence is not a sliding scale, nor is it general-purpose: though the intelligence of the Gods is surely closer to general-purpose than that of humans, intelligence is still more of a cloudy constellation than it is a straight line marked from 0 to infinity.

This being the case, then, perhaps it would be more useful for us to think of the world as being comprised of an ecology of Gods and spirits, rather than a ladder whereupon we place ourselves as close to the top as possible, always dreaming of ways to finally usurp those topmost rungs and have complete control over all that we see.

That will never happen. Tragedy and suffering will continue to befall us, because pain forces either growth or destruction; and it just so happens that growth and destruction are the twin backbones of material existence. Neither can last forever, and stagnancy was never an option.

Krakatoa vaporized itself in 1883, taking 40,000 souls with it. Since then, Anak Krakatoa, the Child of Krakatoa, has been growing at a steady rate of 20 feet per year, and its only a matter of time before it erupts once more. If we dare to assert that this volcano has intelligence, is in possession of a godhood, then the ethical implications are not for the weak-hearted – nor are they, apparently, for progressivist polytheist milieu, who more and more act like nothing less than temporarily embarrassed misotheists.

In Cosmos, Carl Sagan posed the question: what’s the point of worshiping the non-sentient? Or rather, beings that cannot change themselves simply because you demanded them to? Why ally ourselves with intelligences that don’t resemble our own, and who realize priorities that may not in any way match ours? We must first get out of our own way before we can even begin discovering the answer.

Foremost, it creates a story. Not a linear story with a beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Nor that linear story of progress: a narrative with no more than a beginning followed by a never-ending rising action of human peace, prosperity, and goodwill. Rather, it weaves a story of the human animal, and our place in the constellation of Others. Our place is not special, nor are our wants and desires. Nor, terrifyingly enough, are our barest needs.

Moreover, our relationship with the Powers need not be expressly or subtly antagonistic. The relationship between the wolf and the deer is only such when we choose to view it that way, as those misguided vegans do. They are simply creatures living out the terms of their existence: one providing sustenance for the other, and the other ensuring the first doesn’t overcrowd itself into famine and disease. We are not exempt from a similar food web. Nothing is guaranteed for any of us.

I worship a storm God. He is a friend of humans, a protector of the fields, but He also sends hurricanes and storm surges. This manifestation of His kills many every year, and renders homeless many more. The progressive would have me believe that these things either don’t matter or aren’t “Him” – aspects that Carl Sagan might have considered non-sentient and non-intelligent. How is this terrifying and catastrophically violent mask different than the mask that Zeus wears when He rapes? Or Odin’s when He otherwise uses and abuses? Why should these things be more terrifying? More appalling? Temporarily embarrassed misotheists indeed.

We need more than what the current frameworks allow: between the human-centered indignation and the God-centered puritanism, there’s little to be had. Both accept the existence of a ladder, they merely differ about who ought to sit on top.

I’m here to posit a world-centered theology – that is, an ethical framework that values no particular party over any other, but rather the place where those parties can be allowed to co-mingle and where constituent parts may come together to create wholes. Because without place, none of us are much of anything.

This post is too long already, so I won’t write more about it now. I may not write much more about it in the future either, but this is nonetheless a contribution to what I see as an ecology of thought lacking in diversity. There is more to being than just the diametric opposites of survival or self-sacrifice.

Let’s stop cooking the books to balance our emotional ledgers; stop separating our Gods from Their terrible, inhuman natures. They are not human. This we need to accept, whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, this means asking hard questions and accepting harder answers. But we must begin somewhere, so:

Your God is a volcano.

What do you do when They decide to kill 40,000 people?

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6 thoughts on “Gods, Volcanoes, and AI

  1. I cannot even express how much I love this post, on so many levels. Thank you. Lots to think about. Though I already have fully accepted the non-humanness of gods, and spirits (when you really get to know the fae, for instance, you learn how very different other beings’ ethics and priorities can be – and they’re still closer to humans than some other things out there). I think we’ll know when polytheism (at least as it’s practiced by modern Westerners) has finally grown up when we collectively understand and even embrace this fact.

    Whether humanity as a whole will ever grow up is less likely in my view, but we can hope.

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    1. Thank you very much! And, wow, glad to see that I’m writing down ideas original enough to give veterans like you something to think about.

      I’ve known that the Gods aren’t human for a while too – that none of the Other is, ever since my first childhood encounters with it. And that’s exactly why I’m a devotional polytheist. If I wanted to worship humans, I’d be reading the tabloids. It’s such a strange feeling, encountering Their human-like sides, their kindness and affection, and being struck with the sense that I’m truly lucky to have seen that. Whereas… the other side expects that all the time, forever. And apparently they experience it – though I suspect that much of it is sockpuppeting to fill in the gaps.

      On a sassier note, I think the part I’m most thrilled with is “temporarily embarrassed misotheist”.

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      1. “glad to see that I’m writing down ideas original enough to give veterans like you something to think about.”

        Your blog is honestly one of the few I still read these days in the polytheist sphere – you’re doing some great work here, digging into really important concepts.

        “If I wanted to worship humans, I’d be reading the tabloids.”

        Yes! Something our culture is already too full of. Sadly, it’s probably precisely this spiritually-bankrupt mentality in our culture that creates so many people who – even if they make the leap to polytheism in theory – can’t quite get past their human-centric focus. It’s one of the big things that separates us from our polytheistic ancestors, and from contemporary indigenous traditions.

        “Whereas… the other side expects that all the time, forever. And apparently they experience it – though I suspect that much of it is sockpuppeting to fill in the gaps.”

        Absolutely. It’s amazing to me that they don’t seem to question why their “gods” all look, act, and talk like people (and the most mundane people at that) all the time, have the same priorities as they do, the same perspectives… why not just talk to your friends if all you want is a buddy? It’s not that there isn’t a human-like side to many gods, or that we can’t have personal relationships with them, but there’s a qualitative difference.

        You can easily tell, too, because the sockpuppets never blow their heads or lives wide open, the way gods are wont to do. Probably this is a large part of why they prefer the sockpuppets – real gods are scary and unpredictable and uncontrollable. Even if they don’t intend harm, they are huge and powerful (I mean, back to your example of the volcano god – does such a god want to kill 40,000 people, or is that just a function of its existence, the way we must consume life to survive? But either way, how can we imagine that interacting with such an entity is going to be just like chatting to a friend?)

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        1. In my comic, my main character is having his world rent apart by a god – albeit in a little more colorful and literal fashion than what we experience in our polytheist lives – but the responses to what’s happening to him fascinates me. Most readers are on the god’s side, interestingly enough, and only one or two people have come forward to say that gods are assholes, and this god is no different. Why is it when things are presented as fiction, we can more readily accept difficult, inhuman powers? This, to me, points to just another gaping blind spot in the humanist/progressivist polytheist mentality.

          “Sockpuppets never blow their heads open”

          Nope – sockpuppets are only as wise and capable as their puppeteers!

          “Why not talk to your friends if all you want if a buddy?”

          I feel like this is the spiritual equivalent to having fetishes and preferring those to real people. It’s easier, it readily trips the reward centers in the brain, and it makes us feel special because anything goes in our own heads.

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