Theism as a cognitive translation of objects into deities

God does not exist. There’s no disputing this, there’s no debate to be had - it just isn’t a subject that is suitable for adult conversation. When I hear rational adults say they believe in god, I don’t believe them. That goes for deities of all types, spirits, ghosts, fairies, unicorns, etc. Maybe I sound like a dick about this, but sky wizards that created the universe and control your destiny? Come on, you’re making a fool of yourself.

Then again, objects don’t exist either. I mean things like stones, trees, anything you can hold. They’re not real in the way that we understand objects. They seem like they are, but there is a tradition running from Heraclitus, through Nietzsche, Alfred Whitehead, Galen Strawson, and into modern physics claiming that all that really exists are processes. The concept is easier to understand with a statement like lightning flashes (Nietzsche’s example). What is it that’s flashing? There is no thing that’s flashing. The flashing is just happening without an object doing it. We conceptualize this event as lightning, a noun, but there is no actual object distinct from the event.

Rocks are more difficult to explain this way, but the same principles apply. Remember, a rock is really just a collection of atoms, infinitesimally small, in constant motion, with vast stretches of empty space between each atom in the collection. The atoms themselves are made of subatomic particles which in turn have vast empty spaces between them. Nobody really knows for sure what these subatomic particles themselves are made of, but one theory has it that they’re 11-dimension strings whose vibrational frequency gives rise to the particle’s properties. The strings might merely be artifacts of the geometry of space, like rips or dimples in empty space.

In other words, what appears to be a solid rock is just something which that region of space is doing, analogous to the way that lightning is something that a region of the sky is doing, or the way a wave is something that a region of the ocean is doing. Imagine space is a bed sheet hung out on a clothesline. In this analogy, rocks, human bodies, stars, planets – they aren’t even the bed sheet itself, they’re like the rippling of the bed sheet in the wind.

This is fun philosophy, but if we really saw objects this way it would be impossible to engage with them in any practical way. A rock might be a process that space is undergoing, but in order to pick it up and throw it, you have to see it as an object. So we run it through a biological and psychological (and sometimes cultural) filter. The filter removes almost everything about the process, then screws handles onto the paltry residue – handles meaning properties which are not intrinsic to it (like color, name) so that we are able to cognize and manipulate it. If you know about computer programming, you can think of this as sort of like casting. We cast processes as objects, or we we objectify a process to allow a wider range of mental operations to be performed on it.

So I’m proposing that belief in deities is similar. Some people are able to objectify and also deify a process. This is easier to understand in polytheistic and especially animistic religions, where each deity is the god of something. Poseidon is a deification of the ocean, Helios is a deification of the sun, etc. In monotheism, it’s like all of existence deified as one concept.

Just as objectifying a process allows you to perform certain actions on it (talk about it and think of it in certain ways), so does deification. Thinking of the ocean as an entity with intentions and emotional states allows you to say things like, “let’s not sail today, Poseidon looks angry.” This kind of thinking has undoubtedly let to the cultural evolution of useful habits. Following kosher rules is motivated by wanting to obey what you think is the dictates of god, for example, but it actually is an effective method of preventing bacterial contamination of food. Covering the ground with leaves after you dig up a root vegetable to hide it from ghosts ends up providing fertilizer for new roots to grow. Any anthropologist can give one example after another all day.

We all deify things to some extent. Anyone who is about to drive to a job interview and finds their car not starting is almost certainly going to say “please car, just start,” which is a thing that makes no sense unless the car has a will of its own. This kind of thinking can potentially lead to an insight, like maybe imagining that the car is angry at you will make you resolve to be nicer to it in the future by taking it to the mechanic.

So is it useful, in general, to deify objects? I think it’s probably not for most people, when we know enough about science that we can relate to most things as objects alone. When your car won’t start, without needing to imagining the car to be angry, you still can understand that something is broken in it which a mechanic can fix. A sailor can understand the ocean without thinking about Poseidon’s mood when there are weather reports. There are many examples where deification is counter productive (not getting vaccinated because you believe jesus will protect you from COVID). It’s really an empirical question though, and a lot of thought and psychology/social science research would be needed to answer the question. Are there any types of useful cognitive operations that can be performed on deity concepts which cannot be performed on object concepts? Does deifying something give you any abilities at all in dealing with it competently that you don’t have otherwise?


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