Retooling God

By Andy Ross
May 26, 2013

Imagine you're in an an old house. Its proud owners lead you on, but they don't seem to notice the piles of old papers everywhere. Your foot sometimes sinks into a rotten floor, raising dust as the timber beneath crumbles like a dry biscuit. On a lower floor you notice that the ceiling is propped up by loose columns of papers, which flutter free as you disturb the air walking by. You begin to feel an urge to vacate the old ruin before it collapses.

Welcome to God's house. From Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad, the tour guides for this structure have been heirs to a tradition based on words, and commentaries on words, leading back into the shadows of the deep past. The God of the patriarchs was an invisible presence who said: "I am!" His followers quaked at first, then learned over the centuries first to trust, then to love, and finally just to obey the divine commands.

Today we can look back in awe. Amazingly, the God worked, and billions of people followed the voice to build mighty civilizations that led us humans into modern times. The self, the subject of the "I" who is, led people to team with their neighbors and work out visions of the future and thus to build a huge and welcoming house to accommodate His flock in what seemed for centuries like regal splendor. Few people noticed the rot that set in.

Some people glimpsed the rot hundreds of years ago. Philosophers and scientists saw that the self of human action need not follow the dictates of a divine patriarch. A human actor was a sovereign being, driven by motives leading back beyond the religious traditions to basic biology. A civil society could be founded on laws agreed in debate between people moved by logic and good sense to enjoy the fruits of new work in science and industry.

Any big new thing brings errors and excesses. But people learn, until the new ways improve on the old ones. So it is with the powerful new science of the self. We are learning to appreciate the subtle processes that knit a self within the neural structures of a human brain. Soon we shall understand how a huge layered stack of virtual selves emerges in the web of human nodes who form a global community of citizens. Then we can retool God.