Jul 25, 2023
“The centralization of political power in Rome killed polytheism. Will the decentralization of intelligence spark its return?”
Judeo-Christian theology begins with the Torah, including the First Commandment of the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God…you shall not have other gods beside me.” (Exodus 20: 2)
Imagine instead a world in which virtually everything is animated by its own god or demigod. Every new phenomenon calls into being its own animating spirit, its own god…or vice versa. We’re not talking pantheism or even panentheism here; this is good old-fashioned ‘pagan’ polytheism!
Such a cosmology leaves little room for a Supreme Being. Akhenaten introduced monotheism to Egypt…epic fail! Likewise, polytheism offers narrow scope for human agency. As Homer demonstrated in the Iliad, human beings may act as they will, but macro results are determined on another plane. Paraphrasing an old maxim, “Humans propose, gods dispose.”
When we try to map European polytheism onto Semitic monotheism, we end up with some strange bedfellows: Zeus playing the part of YHWH, for example. Talk about miscasting! Notify SAG-AFTRA. Zeus is more of a gang leader than a Supreme Being, more El Chapo, less El Shaddai.
Each of the gods has its own patch, its own ‘ministerial portfolio’ so to speak. Got an issue with the sea, see ‘The Secretary of Seas’, Poseidon. At least that’s what it says in the official Visitor’s Guide to the Parthenon. In fact, however, a cabinet meeting on Mount Olympus makes the PM’s question time in the House of Commons seem like an episode of Mister Rogers.
Underneath the neatly drawn org chart, the world is seething with god sown turmoil. Gods’ domains overlap, ensuring conflict – and that’s if the deities color inside the lines, which they rarely do. Several gods might have legitimate, if conflicting, interests in the fate of a certain ocean voyage, but that doesn’t mean that other gods won’t stick their oars in as well. At times, things resemble the food fight in Meatballs.
When the Olympians took over from the Titans, they turned to Zeus, their wartime hero, their George Washington, to be lawgiver. Bad choice! Zeus was a wartime consigliere, ill-suited to leading the world during a period of peace. If only they’d had James Madison to advise them on constitutional matters!
Fortunately, most executive decisions aren’t made on Mt. Olympus! ‘Command and control’ is decentralized. Some gods roam the earth, others take possession of a single tree, whirlpool, or water fall. Either way, they direct the course of human events from their chosen vantage.
For the most part, the gods are more powerful than their human clients, but they are far from omnipotent, omnipresent, or omniscient. Gods move faster than we do; faster even than our latest supersonic jets – but still well below the speed of light. Bottom line: even a god can’t be in two places at once! At least not then… (Stay tuned!)
Like most religions, European Polytheism is concerned with ‘why bad things happen to good people’? One answer offered by Judeo-Christianity is the doctrine of Original Sin (Adam, Eve, Serpent, Apple). European Polytheism attributes the origin of mischief to the gods themselves!
Take Oedipus, for example; he is guilty of patricide and incest, but unknowingly, he is simply following a script (fate) written by amoral gods. He has no nefarious intent, far from it, and yet he must be punished. State of mind has no place in this ethical scheme.
No wonder! In contrast to Judeo-Christian theology, the gods in Greek mythology are not governed by any transcendent moral code. Beauty, Truth, Justice, Kindness, and Mercy, perhaps desirable in themselves, are nonetheless entirely optional, so intent is not relevant to morality.
Compare the Book of Job with the Odyssey. Citing natural law and a transcendent moral code, Job summons God to stand trial for ‘wanton acts of injustice’. Worse luck, Job draws YHWH as his presiding justice. Even so, Job wins! Can you imagine something like that happening in Homer’s Greece…or in America?
As Imperial Rome absorbed the Greek city states, and everything else in the process, the notion of distributed power, human or divine, began to seem out-of-touch with reality. Semitic monotheism, in its various forms, spread quickly post-Augustus.
The idea of distributed intelligence staged a bit of a comeback during the Middle Ages, but that spark was snuffed out by the Renaissance. From 1500 to 1900, the name of the game was Central Intelligence; its crowning achievement: the Industrial Revolution.
Then the wheels came off. The intellectual (not political) history of the 20th century belongs to proponents of distributed intelligence. Chaos Theory, first outlined by Henri Poincare (c. 1880), removed ‘locality’ from ‘causality’. Now, a butterfly in Borneo can impact the weather in Chicago. Forget about Lake Michigan! This is polytheism on steroids.
In 1964, John Bell took matters even further with his famous non-locality theorem. Bell showed that events on opposite sides of the universe can be correlated (not controlled)! The speed of light is no longer a barrier to divine intervention. Now, gods can be two places at once!
During this same period, biologists, physiologists, and neurologists were discovering that intelligence per se is ‘distributed’, if only throughout an organism’s nervous system.
Recently, polytheism (‘distributed intelligence’) has made its mark in the world of information technology as well. Out of PCs and Smartphones came Blockchain, a technology capable of performing the most remarkable feats of legerdemain without employing any central computer. Instead, a single blockchain consists of thousands of independent processing nodes, linked like the Beer Snake at sporting events.
The 1st century centralization of political power in Rome killed polytheism. Will the 21st century decentralization of intelligence spark its return?